As any computer user knows, the best software upgrades are those that maintain all the qualities of the original product while .. adding some nifty new features. In a sense, it's like buying the same thing twice, except that it's better the second time around.
That's pretty much the effect Garbage is going for with its sophomore release, "Version 2.0" (Almo Sounds 80018, arriving in stores today). Despite pre-release reports that made the project seem as problem-plagued as Windows '98, the album manages to make more of the same seem like an unusually good deal.
In terms of general sound and sensibility, it's not all that different from the band's 1995 debut. We get the same blend of guitar crunch and automaton thump in the instrumental tracks, the same fondness for exotic textures and sudden bursts of noise, the same combination of sex and sass in the vocals. This is definitely not an attempt at reinvention.
But the album does make improvements, and good ones at that. Unlike many upgrades, which get so lost in adding bells and whistles that they lose sight of what made the software worth owning in the first place, the authors of "Version 2.0" clearly understood that it was the songwriting, not the studiocraft, that made "Garbage" worth picking up.
So there's extra emphasis on the melodies, putting such a premium on catchiness that barely a verse goes by without a hook or two snagging the listener's ear. Even when the band is at its most moody and ambitious, it gives the listener plenty to hum along with.
"Push It" is a case in point. Singer Shirley Manson pulls out all stops on the tune, moving from sultry croon to distorted scream to desperate whisper, giving a performance that doesn't need a video to seem dramatic. Yet for all that, what comes through most vividly is the song's many layers of melody, from the slurred, sing-song cadences of the verse to the mewling guitar on the chorus.
It helps, of course, that the three guys in Garbage -- Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Butch Vig -- are very much at home in the recording studio. Although the vibe on "Version 2.0" is very band-oriented and organic, the sounds are often like nothing found in the usual world of guitars, basses and drums. Instead, what we get is like the acoustic equivalent of computer graphics -- something similar to natural sound, but infinitely malleable and often quite fantastic.
Hence the clank and crunch of "Hammering in My Head," a delirious bit of audio adrenalin that clatters along to the beat of pulsing synths and machine-shop percussion. It owes a little to industrial music, a little to drum 'n' bass, and a little to "Ride of the Valkyries," yet sounds like absolutely none of the above. Needless to say, the song is easy to get lost in.
Musical dramatics have always been this band's strong suit, though, and not just because the lads like to play around with sound.
As much as the shifting textures in "I Think I'm Paranoid" adds to the song's impact -- and what listener wouldn't be smitten by the sudden burst of distorted guitar that ushers in the chorus? -- the wit and conviction Manson brings to the lyric is what turns the tune from sonic novelty into surefire single. Likewise, though the combination of cool synths and hot drumming in "Sleep Together" makes for almost irresistible ear candy, it's Manson's sex-as-negotiating-tool lyric that ultimately holds our attention.
Granted, "Version 2.0" is hardly the revelation its predecessor was. But even if the album doesn't quite reinvent the wheel, it's still a killer application -- and one likely to stay in your disc drive for months to come.
What: "Version 2.0"
Released by Almo Sounds
Sun Score: ***
Pub Date: 5/12/98