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Rob Huff

CD of The Week

Week of 6/13/16

    Garbage - Strange Little Birds (Stunvolume)

    Garbage remain one of the great supernova stories of the post-grunge era. With their Molotov cocktail of fuzzy guitars and fizzier electronica, they burned brightly and brilliantly through their landmark self-titled debut and the subsequent, Grammy-nominated juggernaut Version 2.0, scorching an indelible mark on the radio and Billboard charts along the way. Alas, lukewarm reception and label interference led to a bit of a burnout following 2001's stylistically playful beautifulgarbage. While not perfect, that album has proven oddly prescient 15 years later as its splicing of synth-rock with more mainstream pop and hip-hop predicted the massive monogenre that modern indie music has become (looking at you, Grimes). After proving that they could keep breathing on 2012's Not Your Kind of People, Garbage are finally trying new tricks again on Strange Little Birds, a more adventurous affair as well as their most confident, commanding set of songs since their '90s heyday.

    The band has made a point of describing this album as something of a spiritual successor to their debut, which they spent a lot of time revisiting during last year's 20 Years Queer anniversary tour. That album gets remembered most fondly for its rollicking singles: "Stupid Girl," "Vow" and "Only Happy When It Rains." While a few moments here and there capture those classics' bluster (crunchy current single "Empty" pretty much confirms that they can do that in their sleep), the meat and potatoes of the record is focused on moodier, more cinematic arrangements that recall torchier numbers like "Milk" and B-side "#1 Crush." The result is a more pensive, patient listening experience that gains power as repeat listens reveal the group's mastery of controlled composition.

    They also shine a light on the ever-underrated lyricism of Shirley Manson, who turns in some of her most romantic and reflective performances yet. "If I Lost You" recounts the insecurity and anxiety that often accompany devotion to a lover over spare beats not far removed from Björk's similarly themed album Vespertine, while "Teaching Little Fingers to Play" repurposes lines from past highlights "When I Grow Up" and "Fix Me Now" in a way that suggests its narrator is irreparably damaged, finally free of expectation, or both. Best of these songs is "Night Drive Loneliness." Inspired by a fan letter Manson received in Russia, it's lament of longing enveloped in lushly languid noir pop that suggests Lana Del Rey if she actually wanted to be Ultraviolent.

    It's not all mood and malaise, however. "We Never Tell" plays like a mashup of "Special" and Bleed Like Me standout "Right Between the Eyes" with its gossamer gallop, while the climactic "So We Can Can Stay Alive" is a perfect storm of Muse's "Hysteria" and Screaming Females' "Triumph," with Manson's siren vocals serving as the calm eye within, ensuring resolve and resurgence in the face of turmoil. And make no mistake, this album is the diary of a band resurgent, even defiant. These strange little birds still know how to soar.

    Garbage return to Philadelphia at The Fillmore on July 30th.
    Review by Rob Huff

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