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Garbage Makes The '90s Sound Fresh Again On 'Strange Little Birds'

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 10, 2016 2:17PM

Photo by Joseph Cultice

By Andy Derer

Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson could have coasted when they formed Garbage with lead singer Shirley Manson. Vig had already produced era-defining work with Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins; he could easily have stuck with the angsty hard rock that made him famous. Instead, Vig and company created Garbage’s eponymous debut album, which sounded digital yet somehow still human and warm. It was the first alt-rock album that sounded completely of the ‘90s. Now, the band is releasing their seventh album, Strange Little Birds (out Friday on Vagrant Records)—but it only makes sense in the context of the band’s early years as ‘90s innovators.

Anyone who’s seen The Smart Studios Story knows that Garbage was the exact opposite of an overnight sensation. Vig and his studio in Madison, Wisconsin had been creating Midwestern punk and jangly alternative music nearly a decade before Nirvana become a band your grandmother had heard of. Shirley Manson, a beautiful Scottish vocalist whose band Angelfish caught Vig and company’s ear back in 1994, had been gifted with a natural charisma. Simultaneously tough as nails and a beacon of style, Shirley would become a mid ‘90s cover girl and help personify the look of “heroin chic.” So when these two, somewhat disparate factions, combined forces after working separately for years, the product was undeniable. “Stupid Girl,” “Queer,” “Only Happy When It Rains,” “Push It” and countless other songs became part of the late ‘90s zeitgeist, fusing alt rock with modern drums, bass and dance sounds.

It’s only natural that Garbage has stayed committed to the sound they pioneered twenty years ago. Strange Little Birds certainly sounds comfortable and confident in it’s own skin, almost playful. The band has sanded away the few rough edges that were present on previous outings. The resulting 11 tracks are all loaded with studio wizardry that blurs the line between what’s made by man and what is made by machine. Sure, it’s processed within an inch of it’s life, but one doesn’t look towards Garbage for a pared-down or acoustic set. It’s kind of comforting to know that the 1995 trip-hop sound on Garbage’s debut (or, for that matter, on Bjork’s “Post” or Tricky’s “Maxinquaye”) can still sound modern and fresh today.

Shirley has called the album a “romance record,” and it especially feels that way in “Night Drive Loneliness,” a track that feels like a cinematic, sensual diary entry. First single “Empty” throws in woozy guitars and a catchy pop melody into the mix. “Blackout” rides a nearly-funky bassline to a dreamlike finale. When Garbage tries for a pop single, as on “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed,” there is a slight dip in energy—that is, until that song’s last minute, which explodes with thick guitars and crashing drums. In its 52 minutes, Strange Little Birds never runs out a steam. For a band in it’s third decade, you can damn-well say the same about Garbage.

Andy Derer is host of The Andy Derer Show, one of Chicago's longest running music interview podcasts. He is also a writer, musician and restaurateur from the western suburb of Westmont. The man is also an outspoken proponent of the compact disc and owns over 4,000 of them.