What ever happened to the rock & roll mama, the sexually ravenous hipster who trolls for male tail without pain or apology? Despite a twister of press whipped up over women dominating pop in the last year, the mainstream mainly embraced the precious and retro ladies of Lilith — all ’70s-style sensitivos like Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos, Jewel, and Paula Cole. Or they celebrated neurotics (Courtney Love), cartoons (Spice Girls, Gwen Stefani), or avenging nerds (Alanis Morissette, Ani DiFranco).
Where does that leave a woman who’s tough, sexy, and flip, in the tradition of a Tina Turner or a Janis Joplin? The last commercial hurrah for such types came in the late ’70s with the post-punk wave of Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, the Divinyls’ Christina Amphlette, and Deborah Harry.
The rarity of such creatures stokes special passion for the second coming of Shirley Manson, frontwoman of Garbage, back with a spirited sophomore work, Version 2.0. The band’s self-titled 1995 debut established Manson as the last swaggering broad to sell big. She was leather clad and whip smart, but her cool wasn’t based on anger (like the riot grrrls), and her depth didn’t come from earnest revelation (like the new singer-songwriters). Manson could be sarcastic and moving at once, revealing her vulnerability without having to drop her wit. Better, she resurrect-ed that classic character in a musical setting free from recycling. In bitchy hits like ”Queer” and ”Stupid Girl,” Garbage anticipated where music was soon to go.
While the band included one of alt-rock’s main architects, producer-musician Butch Vig, they banished all mid-’90s guitar cliches from the multiplatinum Garbage. Smart move, since rock was on the verge of faltering. Joined by two studio-rat buddies (Steve Marker and Duke Erikson) from his hometown of Madison, Wis., Vig’s guitars sounded like tape loops and vice versa. Garbage made a kind of rock you could dance to. Or was it the other way around? Either way, their rhythmic use of noise suggested rock electronica two years before the likes of the Chemical Brothers and Roni Size, elevated by conventional pop melodies and Manson’s super-chick persona.
Version 2.0 can’t match such a high standard of surprise. But it shows growth by offering even finer pop tunes and making cheeky new references to music history. You’ll find extra effervescence in Garbage’s new songs. The first single, ”Push It,” floats the dreamy chorus line of the Beach Boys’ ”Don’t Worry Baby” over a spy theme swanky enough for John Barry. ”When I Grow Up” hovers a breathy refrain a la Blondie around a pulverizing beat, while ”I Think I’m Paranoid” lets electronic machines pound riffs with all the cruelty of power chords. In that last track, Garbage allude to the campy ’60s hit by the American Breed, ”Bend Me, Shape Me,” adding electronic pings that could come only from a record of the moment.
Everywhere they can, the foursome push the improbable, mixing the ghostly sound of a theremin with serrated guitars or working up a series of screeches and bleats into a sturdy pop bridge. But it’s Manson’s persona that makes these songs more than just clever exercises in avant-pop. With her breathy tone and huffy delivery, she’s Nancy Sinatra walking all over you, or Chrissie Hynde demanding that you stop all your sobbing. In the song ”Special,” Manson not only alludes to Hynde in the title but mimics her breathiness. Like Hynde, Manson uses that haughtiness as an ironic admission of need.
Manson’s lyrics revel in those contradictions. In the opening track, ”Temptation Waits,” she calls herself a wolf, a demon, and a vampire, but only to hook someone she’s mad for. In the final ”You Look So Fine,” she brings the irony to a boil, braying ”You look so fine/I want to break your heart/And give you mine.” That’s one of rock’s seminal mixed messages — the tough come-on hiding a heartache. How great to find it matched to music that makes rock dynamics sound new again and fronted by a singer who reminds pop of something it forgot: A hard woman is good to find. B+