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Garbage
Version 2.0
(Almo Sounds)

Almost three years have passed since Garbage's self-titled debut blew a hole through the grunge-obsessed alternative gold standard, selling four million records, grabbing three Grammy nominations, and making an altrock icon of singer Shirley Manson. Garbage was heavy with crashing, burning energy and vital singles that melded technology, sex, and grit. Version 2.0 is an equally satisfying and progressive effort, and one that demonstrates the band has grown even tighter during its swift rise.

Manson and Garbage men Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and Butch Vig co-wrote and produced the record together at their Wisconsin studio, and the result is a synthesis of styles that blend brilliantly. The idea that four heads can operate as efficiently as one has killed many otherwise talented groups, but Garbage has succeeded in crafting a sound that's truly representative of each member, as well as of the whole. Version 2.0 continues the band's use of layered sounds, loops, samples, scratches, and blasts, the twelve songs steaming and cooling like lava meeting the ocean, with a sense of humanity that's as relentless as the hard machinelike beats that drive it.

In the album's opening lines Manson confides, "I'll tell you something, I am a wolf but I like to wear sheep's clothing/I am a bonfire, I am a vampire, I'm waiting for my moment." She quickly finds her spark as "Temptation Waits" takes off like a bullet train, setting a high-tech standard for the record's sound. The only two truly guitar-driven tracks on the album are the Moog-toned "Dumb" and "Wicked Ways," a swinging vamp with a militant Clash-style chorus. The rest is new wave for a new millennium.

"I Think I'm Paranoid," "When I Grow Up," and "The Trick Is to Keep Breathing" all have subtle touchstones that can be traced to essential late-Seventies/early-Eighties pop, specifically Blondie, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Gang of Four, Berlin, and New Order. "Hammering in My Head" is an especially fond nod, as the bubbling rave beat, air-raid-siren guitars, and a pile of loops and noises drive Manson into a coarse, threatening whisper that's even creepier than her disdainful howl.

Manson coos and taunts with her usual facility throughout the set, and her lyrics consistently demand that her subjects have a brain, know what they think, and craft an opinion, even if it's only from the heart. "Special" and "Push It" are prime examples of her ability to wed angelic harmonies and poisoned emotions, and when Manson growls, "This is the noise that keeps me awake/My head's on fire and my body aches," there's no doubt that the state she's describing is about to become the listener's hell as well. But the master stroke behind Version 2.0 is that Garbage's hot-wired sound celebrates the postpunk era without invoking stiff hair or limp music, and uses technology to prove that rock can survive in an information society.

-- Robin Myrick

Soul Asylum
Candy from a Stranger
(Columbia)

The self-pitying treacle of "Runaway Train" notwithstanding, Soul Asylum has inarguably made its best music after hooking up with Columbia for the 1992 multiplatinum breakthrough Grave Dancers Union. Their prior indie efforts, although lauded by obscurantist hipsters, were uniformly bland, if relatively tuneful, variations on the work of their Minneapolis peers (most notably HYsker DY and the Replacements), with Dave Pirner adopting the loser pose of Paul Westerberg without the ability to turn his despair into something scruffily poetic or something gloriously raging à la DY frontmen Bob Mould and Grant Hart. Pirner didn't get better on Grave Dancers, really -- embarrassing lines crisscross the album, from "Somebody to Shove" to "Black Gold" -- but at least the band had finally found a way to harness the power so abundant in their live shows but so lacking in their previous albums for Twin Tone and A&M. Both Grave Dancers and its '95 followup Let Your Dim Light Shine just sound good, with Dan Murphy's classically styled guitar crunch making it easy to overlook the lapses in Pirner's writing and his painstakingly earnest (read: occasionally overwrought) vocals.

Even Murphy can't salvage Candy from a Stranger, a lite-rock mess that establishes Soul Asylum as this decade's -- I don't know, REO Speedwagon? Certainly the hooks here could've been lifted from the songbooks of unctuous arena popsters like REO's Kevin Cronin, and lines such as "If the darkness has no end/Light up the darkness" (from "Creatures of Habit") aren't too far removed from what you'll find in REO's go-optimism anthem "Roll with the Changes." Elsewhere Pirner's angst manifests itself in cheap cliches -- rivers feed into oceans as the water washes over him; he knows thoughts count so he wants to be counted on; time keeps running by but, dammit, no one understands how he, you know, feels; and life feels like a mission to see just how much a man can take, so he needs somebody to, you know, watch over him.

Granted, Pirner's always been a simp, but in the past Soul Asylum would at least occasionally redeem his heart of mush with a bullwhip-cracker such as "99%," "Keep It Up," or "Hopes Up." The best they can do on Candy is the blustery, pseudometallic "Lies of Hate." I thought this was the band's worst song until "The Game" popped up three songs later, wherein Pirner sounds all kinds of tore up because he's not sure if he wants to fuck his best friend's flirty wife. Simp rock has seldom sounded so pathetic.

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