Funny what a difference a few years make. Back in 1995, Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson was pop’s potent new female voice, and the band, despite the membership of Nirvana producer Butch Vig, created an electro-rock sound — alt-metal with so much sheen that models could walk down runways to it — that was miles removed from grunge. Now, in the era of Christina and Britney, Garbage face two challenges: to make Manson seem like something other than Spears’ bitter old sister and to keep evolving.
In both regards, the band’s third album, beautifulgarbage, succeeds in modest ways. Manson still revels in the aggressive bite of previous Garbage records, and the band backs it up with throbbing tracks like ”Till the Day I Die” and ”Shut Your Mouth.” But she also reveals more tender aspects, singing softer and sweeter on ”Cup of Coffee,” a breakup song with heartfelt detail, and on the subdued ”So Like a Rose,” where she comes off like a dissolute Dido.
Garbage’s experiments with sonic expansion yield more mixed results. They thaw their sound by adding elements of trip-hop, which works for ”Cup of Coffee” and the first single, ”Androgyny,” in which Manson advocates switching sexual orientation as a cure for personal malaise. But on a record that’s more self-consciously varied than 1998’s ”Version 2.0,” other attempts are gimmicky and less successful, like the girl-group opulence of the cloying ”Can’t Cry These Tears” and the dated, ’80s-new-wave bounce of ”Parade.” (Granted, the lyrics of the latter — ”So let’s pray for something/To feel good in the morning” — take on a new relevance now.) If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were listening to a compilation, not a band album. Still, there’s just enough to salvage from ”beautifulgarbage.”