Garbage's Pure Pop For Now People

When I was a kid I had this image of "Swingin' London" -- the London where

the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Twiggy (the model) and all the other

cool people were, decked out in their Mod gear.

Sitting in a suburban house on the side of a hill -- across the tracks from

Mill Valley, Calif., with a freeway view from the front window -- I was

desperate to leave behind my mundane, middle-class life, and to enter the

Swingin' London of my imagination.

It was pretty much always evening in my fantasy. And if you weren't hangin'

out in a recording studio while Brian Jones laid down a part with some

exotic instrument, or cruising in a Bentley or Rolls with a flowered

psychedelic paint-job, you were walking into the coolest club in the world,

an in-crowd nightspot populated by "birds" with bangs wearing miniskirts

and white Go-Go boots.

Garbage make the kind of music that plays in the modern-day equivalent of

those imagined London clubs, the kind of music that fills dreams, fantasies

and sometimes nightmares.

Of course, Garbage are not from London. The band, three veteran studio rats

-- hip producer Butch Vig and musicians/producers Steve Marker and Duke

Erikson -- and singer/lyricist Shirley Manson (who came to the United

States by way of Scotland, and who had stints in a few unsuccessful bands),

are based in the college town of Madison, Wis.

Holed up in Vig's Smart Studios, they construct their pop music piece by

piece, sample by sample. But like the work of legendary record producers

such as Phil Spector (Ronettes, Crystals, etc.) and Shadow Morton

(Shangri-las), the machinations are kept hidden behind the curtain.

The results -- as heard on the group's extraordinary new album, Version

2.0, and on its equally-brilliant debut, Garbage -- are

fully-realized, epic pop masterpieces. While they might present a world as

fabricated as my childhood fantasies, these songs are so seamless that you

make the leap of faith into them without being aware that you're being

taken for a ride.

And what a trip. This is the ride of your life, and the fact that it's an

artful fabrication matters not at all. Pop records are, of course, never

"real." The emotion conveyed might be honest (although that doesn't really

matter as long as it feels real to the listener), but the recording

itself is, in most cases, the work of a team of audio experts -- some

making the music, one or more singing, one or more writing, along with

engineers and people to mix and master -- who are all paid to deliver a

product that, if all goes as planned, a million or so people will buy.

Despite all the jive about "keepin' it real," "indie cred" and all that, as

one successful producer who has delivered albums to indie and major labels

noted to me recently, "If someone is recording rock albums in America

today, they want to sell albums and be successful."

Butch Vig is one of the best of the modern-day auteur record producers.

He's an old hand at producing million-selling smashes, including Nirvana's

Nevermind and two Smashing Pumpkins albums, Gish and

Siamese Dream.

With his associates/friends/bandmates, including the actress Shirley

Manson, Vig has made what will certainly be one of the top 10 albums of

1998. Smart, streetwise and a huge music fan, Vig has devoted his life to

the art of the pop recording. With Version 2.0, he truly comes into

his own.

For the moment, Vig is able to deliver recordings that find art and

commerce intersecting. Garbage make music that is art, pure and simple, but

art that millions of people can dig.

At least two recordings on this album -- "Push It" and "Special" -- are

truly exceptional.

"Push It," the first single, finds musical hook layered upon musical hook.

It's the album's orgasmic centerpiece. Built around the Brian

Wilson-inspired "Don't Worry Baby" chorus, "Push It" takes all the

now-trademark elements that characterized songs on the debut -- programmed

rhythms and samples, fucked-up guitars, ethereal vocals and abrupt dynamic

shifts -- but gives 'em a serious makeover for '98. "Don't worry baby/Don't

be uptight," Manson sings in a voice that sounds like she's describing an

X-rated act. "Don't worry baby/We'll stay up all night."

But while I can single out specific songs, this is an album.

Version 2.0 is the story of a young woman, as portrayed by Shirley

Manson. Her character is -- like so many young women in the late '90s --

unpredictable and enigmatic. Vulnerable; tough; hurt; paranoid;

double-dealing; reassuring; angry; loving; unstable; confident. She loves

to look groovy, but she wants to be taken seriously for her brains. She's a

ball of confusion.

In Manson's world, men and women are often either prey, or being preyed on.

"I knew you were mine for the taking ... when I walked in the room," she

sings, over the insistent sex-disco, hyped-up techno trash tracks of

"Hammering In My Head."

Men are either "special" or dogs. It's no wonder that Manson screams in

"Push It": "My head explodes and my body aches."

And she's learned that betrayal is the norm. "I say, never trust anyone,"

she notes in the unearthly ballad, "The Trick Is To Keep Breathing."

In song after song one strains to make out all the lyrics -- they're that

good. The only thing better is the sound. From the Byrdsian guitars

that open "Special" to the Chrissie Hynde sample from the Pretenders' hit

"Talk of the Town," this is one of those sonic experiences that you get

lost in. While it plays, it feels like there's no exit, and even if there

was one, you wouldn't want to find it. "Special" is a dead-on kiss-off. "I

thought you were special," Manson repeats, but of course, she has already

discovered that her man of choice is anything but. "I've run out of

patience/I couldn't care less." And the clincher: "There's no way in hell

I'd take you back."

In "Sleep Together" -- Manson's update of Romeo Void's '80s hit, "Never Say

Never," with the chorus, "If we sleep together/Will you like me

better?.../If we sleep together/Will I like you better?" -- she sings

coolly, "I've got you twisted 'round my finger/Crawling 'round my legs."

Manson's the kind of girl who kicks sand in your eyes. No matter. If you're

a guy, you'll be back for more -- probably with a smile on your face.