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

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.

-- John Floyd

Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra

From the late Fifties right up until, well, now, groovier-than-thou German composer-arranger Peter Thomas has written and recorded the scores for hundreds of films in his homeland. Wiggy stuff, mostly: heavily orchestrated big band jazz-pop characterized by spritzy brass, hyperactive drumming, burbling keyboards, stinging spy guitar, and occasional trippy, wordless, "biff!-pow!" TV Batman-style vocals. This zesty hourlong compilation, curated by Michael "the Millionaire" Cudahy of nouveau loungemeisters Combustible Edison, concentrates on Thomas's peak era of productivity and creativity, the Sixties and Seventies, when he cranked out the soundtracks for everything from a series of movies based on the spooky-ooky suspense novels of Edgar Wallace (represented here by a handful of tracks, including the swelling, propulsive "The Sinister Monk" and the stylistically diverse six-part suite "The Spell of the Sinister One") to the film version of Erich Von Daniken's spacemen-visited-ancient-Earth manifesto Chariots of the Gods ("Gods from Strange Planets") to the German TV Star Trek-ian cosmic opera Space Patrol ("Bolero on the Moon Rocks," "Lancet Bossa Nova," and the zippy title theme).

No doubt the lava-lamp brigade will hear in Thomas's music echoes of Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Esquivel, Burt Bacharach, Ray Conniff, Henry Mancini, Robert Maxwell, and, somewhat oddly, on 1965's "The Sinister Monk," Frank Zappa (the latter's 1970 Hot Rats). But Thomas branded everything with a signature je ne sais quoi, working the compositional margins with kitschy dollops such as high-pitched, Furies-in-your-inner-ear "oooooooooo" vocals ("Space Patrol") and evil-nogoodnik cackling (the way-out-there "Der Hexer"), while holding down the core with sometimes fizzy, sometimes beboppy instrumentation, best heard on the jaunty, blaring "Traitors" and the piano-vampy "Caught at Midnight." And he understood how to toy with the dynamics of a main theme by taking the melody line and sending it through the genre mixmaster, something he executes here to fine effect on the eight-minute-plus, five-part suite "The Hound of Blackwood Castle" (more Wallace), morphing it from full-throttle brass treatment through creepy-graveyard organ treatment through a highly inventive, over-the-top deconstructed orchestral treatment; he even sneaks in a two-minute bossa nova interlude. The man knew no boundaries: Yeah, that's a sitar rippling through part two of "The Spell of the Sinister One," from 1968.

Futuremuzik argues persuasively that Thomas deserves a hallowed place in the instrumental-music pantheon. His work deftly melts cheese into jazz, a giggle to a chill up the spine. It can function as a perky accompaniment to performing household chores or stand up to the rigors of active listening. (104 W. 29th St., New York, NY 10001)

-- Michael Yockel

Ritchie Valens
Come On, Let's Go!

Whether listeners understand the Spanish lyrics that follow, the five-second guitar intro that kicks off "La Bamba," the signature tune of tragic Fifties rocker Ritchie Valens, seems to affect most people the same way. Valens's joyous reworking of the 400-year-old Mexican wedding song puts just about everyone within earshot in party mode, and that circular six-string riff is an open invitation to let it all hang out. It's been used to great effect at college bars and frat parties for decades, and for good reason: Valens's smash hit is soaking in high spirits and a we-can-be-serious-when-we're-dead-but-tonight-let's-party attitude.

As is much of Come On, Let's Go!, a three-CD box set issued this month by Valens's original and only record label, Del-Fi. The 62-track package reminds those who may have forgotten, and informs those who never knew, that Valens, the first Hispanic rock star, was a formidable musician whose death robbed rock and roll of a great talent. While the collection's unavoidable ballads ("Donna," Valens's first Top 5 hit; "In a Turkish Town"; "Bluebirds Over the Mountain"; "We Belong Together" to name a few) are hopelessly dated and sappy, the up-tempo rockers are full of life and rambunctious energy.

Valens was as much a guitarist as a singer. His nimble fretwork (and that of session guitarist Rene Hall) places him comfortably in the company of early-rock guitar greats such as Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran. Just listen to the title track, as well as the surf-inflected "Bony Moronie," "Ooh! My Head" (later borrowed by Led Zeppelin for the album Physical Graffiti and renamed "Boogie with Stu"; songwriting credit was given to "Mrs. Valens" only after Del-Fi sued Zep on behalf of VAlens's estate), and the bluesy instrumental "Big Baby Blues."

Valens died at seventeen, after a mere six months of fame, in the plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and "The Big Bopper," J.P. Richardson. Come On, Let's Go! can only hint at his potential. This repackaging of Valens's work comes complete with extensive liner notes in a photo-filled booklet and outtakes from sessions for some of the young musician's biggest hits. Also included is the live recording Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Jr. High, released posthumously at the insistence of his fan clubs. Roots-rock fans especially should not dare to miss this collection.

-- Adam St. James


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