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To be the female lead singer of an otherwise male rock band is a somewhat retro vocation, and Sleeper’s frontwoman has shown herself prepared to play the part of a reactionary. Earlier this year, she posed in a suit and tie in front of a door marked “No. 10” to illustrate New Musical Express‘ query, “Is Louise Wener the Margaret Thatcher of indie?”
The answer is “no,” of course. Daring to defend the free-speech rights of British fascists and her own horny male fans, Wener is at best a liberal. At worst, the double entendres of Sleeper’s songs recall early Blondie material like “X Offender”: “There/He comes/She swallows,” is the punch line of “Swallow,” while “Delicious” suggests that “We should both go to bed/Till we make each other sore.” But Wener’s saucy lyrics—like her sultry pose in the photo in the CD booklet of Smart, the London quartet’s debut album—don’t tell the whole story.
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Though some of these songs are in the first person, Sleeper joins the likes of Blur and Supergrass in Britpop’s current revival of Kinksian vignettes. Wener specializes in couples, working-class and unhappy, like the one she efficiently sketches in “Inbetweener”: “He’s not a prince, he’s not a king/She’s not a work of art or anything.” The singer/guitarist, who wrote five of these songs by herself and the others with fellow guitarist Jon Stewart, comes on all crazy in “Pyrotechnician”—“Throw me your matches ‘cos I like to burn stuff/Give me your lighter to keep me amused,” she demands—but she never blazes out of control. Listening to Smart, it seems clear that the real Wener is the coolly ironic writer of “Lady Love Your Countryside,” a song whose title mocks a similarly titled tune by the genuinely rough, messy, and hot-blooded SMASH.
Though lively and economical (12 songs in 38 minutes) in a manner that indicates a familiarity with punk, Smart is not rough or messy. Wener is no bleached bimbo, but Sleeper (like Echobelly before it) does sometimes recall Blondie’s tidy pop, especially on tracks like “Swallow,” “Hunch,” and “Twisted,” which feature the singer’s multitracked harmonies. Neither frenzied nor even especially trendy—Sleeper doesn’t emulate Echobelly’s bows to dance-pop and din-rock fashion—Smart is near-timeless British pop-rock.
That doesn’t make it classic, however. In fact, few of the album’s tracks rival the rush of “Inbetweener” and “Delicious,” both British indie-chart hits. Some of the melodies are indifferent, and even Wener’s lyrics aren’t all that dependable; her portraits of the “Poor Flying Man,” a loser who scores in “Vegas,” and “Alice in Vain” (which rhymes “that’s a pity” with “not even pretty”) could be sharper. Indeed, this uneven album calls attention to one of the smartest things about British pop: The work of bands whose significance can be boiled down to a couple of songs can still be purchased on singles.
Garbage’s lineup is virtually identical to Sleeper’s, but the band is rooted in Madison, Wis., one of the bucolic college-town centers of grimy blast-furnace rock. And look who’s on drums: Nevermind alchemist Butch Vig, who’s produced almost as many of those blast-furnace rockers as his Chicago peer, Steve Albini. Surely the quartet’s eponymous debut couldn’t sound much like Smart.
Well actually it could, which may not surprise those who remember another band for which Vig drummed: Firetown, whose 1986 neo-folk-rock debut was a melodic marvel. (Nevermind about the follow-up.) Shirley Manson, Steve Markes, and Duke Erickson’s guitars are grubbier than Wener and Stewart’s, but they’re balanced by crisply methodical percussion, much of it synthesized, and lotsa keyboards. The result has an Anglo-sheen that would likely appall such former Vig clients as Killdozer. Though Vig, Markes, and Erickson (also a Firetown veteran) are longtime Madisonites, the Britishness of it all is not entirely a ruse: Manson, recruited from Angelfish after she was spotted on MTV, is Scottish.
As thick with loops, beats, and samples as a Ministry album, Garbage sounds paradoxically clean and reliably tuneful. Though its style is more crowded and technocratic than Smart‘s, the two albums’ orbits nonetheless intersect on songs like “Fix Me Now” and “I’m Only Happy When It Rains,” whose refrains ascend on Manson’s multitracked vocals. As popcraft, in fact, this is the more consistent of the two discs. A catalog of sharp hooks, syncopated rhythms, and insinuating refrains, Garbage doesn’t really slack off until the obligatory closing ballad, the bland “Milk.”
“Let me dirty up your mind,” purrs Manson in “Queer,” echoing the “you’re so dirty/make it dirtier” of Sleeper’s “Delicious.” Neither disc is dirty at all, of course, regardless of such trashy Garbage titles as “Supervixen” and “Bad Girl.” Manson has facetiously cited “a bad temper” as her contribution to the band, but the album’s moodiness is all neatly synthesized. Vig and Erickson have traded in the dairyland perkiness of Firetown, yet Garbage’s prickliness is merely sonic.
Despite such refrains as “this is not my idea of a good time,” Manson’s lyrics don’t have much of an edge. Lines like “You crucified me, but I’m back in your bed/Like Jesus Christ coming back from the dead” (in “Vow”) would be shocking in some circles, but most Garbage listeners will find them as banal as the singer’s plea (in “My Lover’s Box”) to “send me an angel to love.” “Don’t believe in fear/Don’t believe in pain,” vows Manson in “Stupid Girl,” and although the mix’s density is infernal, the album is indeed free of such torments. It’s a solid, all-pro effort, and Manson has done her part. Still, she could learn something from cool, smart Louise Wener: If you can’t be dirty, at least be witty.