Apprenticing in cheap and fast sessions during the ’80s in Madison, Wis., at his Smart Studios, producer Butch Vig helped give structure and lucidity to the music of young bands such Killdozer, Tad and Urge Overkill. Then he rewrote the pop book on distortion with Nirvana‘s epochal Nevermind. Quickly he became current rock’s best shaper, a quietly logical guy who could navigate the complicated corners of, say, Sonic Youth and still remember the big beat, chewy tunes and adolescent aggression that make pop fly. Now, Vig has formed Garbage with Shirley Manson of the indifferent Angelfish and his longtime associates Steve Marker (Smart’s co-owner) and Duke Erikson. Together, this unshy Scottish female singer and guitarist and these three ingenious Midwesterners – who provide percussion, guitars, samples, bass and keyboards – compose a studio band that makes up its own drama and kicks as it goes along.
Garbage screw around with dance pulses and guitar tones, pop concision and 12-inch madness, highly flown confessions and teenage thrills. Their basic attack comes from a known yet infrequently considered road: the rock remix. In the studio-driven world of hip-hop and its millions of track versions, this aspect of Garbage would seem unremarkable. But in rock, where the standard of live performance rules, remixes have been dicier affairs. Still, a few bands explore them, developing parallel sonic landscapes often denser and knottier than dance music’s or hip-hop’s. Vig, Marker and Erikson have themselves reconfigured sonics for U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, House of Pain and others, so this unpredictable remix sensibility arrives intact in Garbage. The rest of the shock comes from Manson, who hardly lounges around in these soundscapes like a pop singer content with her settings. This creates a jumpy, unsettled blur of scrupulously dear music and jarring mixed messages.
Immediately, as the mangy riffs of “Supervixen” begin to chum through space, Garbage drags you someplace else. As Manson’s violet throatiness offers to create “a whole new religion,” beats chatter, and delicate acoustic guitar notes and those opening riffs float in and out of the songs gently pounding rhythmic foundations. At times the main riff pauses to halt the music altogether. From there, Garbage ease into “Queer,” a more roundly shaped tune orchestrated with this same love of junk and command of finesse. Acting as a sensual guide, Manson promises to “dirty up your mind,” forecasting a black-and-white path through the strange and the lame as the music makes stringy transitions in ironic technicolor. On the next song, “Only Happy When It Rains,” she and Garbage rock righteously as though Manson is running for the presidency of the Robert Smith Fan Club. Just as you think she has won by a landslide, the band swings in with rhythms and riffs whose complex demeanor recolor the whole song.
“As Heaven Is Wide” rides cool grooves high in focus and fiber, locomoting toward unknown dance-floor destinations. “Not My Idea,” another querulous high-speed track, patiently explains its depressed circumstances, then bangs its silverware on the plate, insisting that “this is not my idea of a good time” Warm Euro-style balladry shows up with “A Stroke of Luck,” but Manson shivers. “Here comes the cold again,” she sings with regret. On “Vow,” the current single, she’s throwing fits again, threatening to tear somebody’s world apart to the tune of industrialized guitar noise.
Near the end of Garbage, Manson affects a kind of peace with her own ravings. On “Stupid Girl” she marches along to a funky bass, indicting someone – herself? – for not believing in fear, pain or people she can’t control. “All you had,” she sings, seething, “you wasted.” After another tuneful near-metal tantrum called “Dog New Tricks,” she and Garbage crest on “My Lover’s Box.” On this great piece, arranged with those mangy riffs but reframed with syncopations from the Spinners and outbreaks from Bad Brains, Manson fears she’ll never get to heaven and pleads, “Send me an angel to love.” The album ends on a lovely two-song coda comprising “Fix Me Now,” a wracked appeal for togetherness, and the lush “Milk,” a ballad in which Manson and Garbage go grunge torch, and she explains her previous moments of cruelty in terms of having been “lost.” Oh, was that it? Garbage teems with such disjunctions of tragedy and junk. Like so much fun and important rock & roll, it’s the product of brilliant misunderstandings.