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Bad news, boys and girls: Shirley Manson’s days of sexing us all over appear to bethis hurtsall over. Gosh, but it sure was a saucy good time while it lasted, wasn’t it? All those off-kilter hits, all those in-your-face come-ons, all those cold showers. I mean, was she really fronting a band based in Wisconsin? On “Supervixen,” the first track on Garbage’s 1995 self-titled coming-out party, the firebomb redhead not only invited us over for a little afternoon delight, but just after that delicious initial blast of stop-and-go guitar, she also slyly snarled, “You can always pull out/If you like it too much.” Then there were those unforgettable coital moanshalf-pleasured, half-painedechoing throughout 1996’s “#1 Crush,” the trippy NC-17 single from the William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. And then, on the band’s sophomore full-length, 1998’s Version 2.0, Manson, face awash in lipstick smears and wearing her “wicked” label with pride, reminded us that she’s “a wolf…a bonfire…a vampire…an addict coming at you for a little more.” God blesshell, God helpthe lucky guy and/or gal who shared her bed.
But on the band’s third album, the new Beautifulgarbage, it’s just not the same old sex and dance-pop anymore. Six years after her arrivalan arrival that was marked by the Scottish siren’s admission that she rarely wore underpantsManson has become more sugar than spice. In other words, in these guilty days of Britney’s boobies, Manson has apparently decided to stock up on bloomers. Maybe she’s feeling older; maybe she’s feeling wiser. Either way, Manson is still sexy as hell; her voice will always sound like a sultry BMW computer telling you your door is ajar. But now the singer only hints at under-the-covers encounters instead of lustfully describing the condition of the post-nookie sheets.
And Manson’s not the only band member cleaning up those naughty thoughts, either. Producer-drummer Butch Vigwho manned the soundboard for such seminal rock albums as the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Nirvana’s Nevermindstill indulges in simultaneous layers of stuttering fuzz, industrial clank, and old-school-rap scratch on each song. But he, too, has discovered decidedly chaster sounds than Manson’s carnal coos to toss into the mix: nerdy New Wave keybs and schmaltzy Motown gloss.
Manson’s and Vig’s transformations aren’t the problem with the new album, however. Garbage has always been more than the sum of its members’ sultry posesa good song, after all, is a good song, dirty talk or not. But along with softening its once-adult content, the band has taken fewer chances musically, relying too often on the lite-brand techno-rock filler that showed up in smaller, more effective doses on its two previous, far superior long-players.
Demonstrating that Manson’s girl-gone-wild routine was never Garbage’s chief asset, Beautifulgarbage works best when the band goes into the way-back machine and retrogrooves to more innocent times. Album standout “Can’t Cry These Tears Anymore” features Shirley as the Shirelles, crooning intentionally syrupy sentiment (“There was a time I thought I’d die/If you should ever leave me high and dry”) over big, swinging wedding bells and big, booming timpani. (But just because Manson’s not as hubba-hubba horny as before doesn’t mean she’s become a pushover: By song’s end, the heartbroken one has “torn all your letters up” and is in the mood “to settle the score.”) “Til the Day I Die” features a playfully humpy Tone-Lo-c-ed beat, wicked old-school scratching, and Manson pledging the most sincere of eternal love. And “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)” incorporates all of the band’s new sonic kicks: a Gary Numan-esque synth line, Manson little-girling like Dale Bozzio, and a campy chiffon-and-taffeta break that finds the suddenly beehived lead singer eyelash-batting herself 40 years into the past.
But these are just three songs out of the 13 available on Beautifulgarbage, and for the most part, Manson & Co. play it surprisingly safe. The remaining tunes aren’t necessarily badmad scientist Vig has forever proved himself incapable of being completely boringjust disappointing for their lack of expected forward movement. Aggressive midtempo opener “Shut Your Mouth” is “Supervixen” reduxexcept instead of wanting to mount the world, Manson simply wants to be left alone. “Breaking Up the Girl” and “Parade” are Beautifulgarbage’s fastest, most frenzied tracks, but fresher versions of each can be found on Version 2.0. And the album’s most egregious miscue is the ho-hum “Androgyny” (“Boys in the girls’ room/Girls in the men’s room”), which, with its feel-good applause for polymorphous perversity, makes Dr. Ruth look positively cutting-edge.
There certainly aren’t too many bands out there like Garbagea noise experiment that manages to be catchy as hell and best-selling to bootand for that reason, any new product from the group (even a product with just a few killer keepers) is welcome indeed. In fact, as an introduction to the band, Beautifulgarbage just might play like an infectious revelation. But if you’ve followed every one of Manson’s grunts, groans, and gaspsand every one of Vig’s twisted pop concoctionssince the beginning, then you fully expect Garbage to know that just because a musical stew isn’t five-alarm spicy, it doesn’t have to be altogether bland. CP