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OK, so I’ve officially given up on trying to figure out how the greatest-hits wing of the music industry works anymore. It just makes no sense whatsoever, and I guess I’m OK with that. In this space, I’ve recently enthused about greatest-hits albums from Luscious Jackson and DMX, and while I couldn’t imagine that either one of those albums had an overwhelmingly huge target-audience, at least both of those artists had signature sounds that helped to define their respective eras. This week, on the other hand, brings Absolute Garbage, the awfully-titled greatest-hits disc from Garbage. I’m wracking my brains trying to figure out who might possibly be expected to buy this thing, and I’m getting nothing. Garbage might’ve sold a lot of records, and they might’ve been considered an important band at their peak, but they didn’t develop a sound that helped to define an era. Instead, they absorbed and synthesized every sound that was popular in alt-rock circles at the time, blurring it all together into a sort of stylistic orphan sound, something both completely dependent on smaller scenes and trends and somewhere outside them. Listening to Absolute Garbage is an exercise in musical history roughly analogous to checking tree-trunk rings for incremental changes in the atmosphere; we know electroclash must’ve arrived in 2001, for instance, because of the burping neon synth-riff of third-album single “Cherry Lips.” On Absolute Garbage‘s first few tracks, we hear revved-up candy-grunge, post-shoegaze guitar-swirl, Stabbing Westward-esque pop-industrial, uber-clean boutique-techno drum-thump, sunny rave synths, and vaguely transgressive lyrical gibberish. If Geffen had sat on this anthology for even a couple of years, the ever-increasing nostalgia-cycle would’ve inevitably brought all those sounds back and made them cool again, and the compilation might’ve had some cachet. In the summer of 2007, though, it’s just like seeing a senior-year class-picture before warm memories of high school have had time to gestate.
Still, I’m happy that Absolute Garbage exists. The band took all those then-current sounds and absorbed them into an immaculate form of studio-pop. And there are some great songs collected here, chief among them the gorgeous sugar-rush synth-ballad “Stupid Girl,” as perfect a song as could be heard on mid-90s alt-rock radio. “Stupid Girl” remains Garbage’s best song, possibly because it veers the closest to straight-up Europop. Listening now, it’s a bit tough to tell why the band even bothered with all their hip sonic signifiers, since they were so evidently a Europop band at heart the whole time. Maybe if the band hadn’t come along at the tail-end of grunge’s total radio dominance, they wouldn’t have felt the need to spike their pop confections with crunchy guitars. A lot of the most awkward moments on the collection come when those guitars take over the most, as on the bridge of “I Think I’m Paranoid.” They never seemed entirely comfortable in their token drum moments, weird considering that Garbage’s drummer produced the album responsible for the grunge explosion. But Garbage was, after all, a total studio creation, a band made up of one live-wire singer (who had to audition for the part) and three studio-rat producers. The band had a fun habit of hiding obvious musical references in plain sight: the drum-intro to the Clash’s “Train in Vain” on “Stupid Girl,” a bit of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” on “Push It.” They also had Shirley Manson, who played a totally hilarious 90s-goth version of the tough-chick archetype; she could’ve been a Juliette Lewis character or something. The vague menace in her snarl might be the most dated thing here, other than maybe the occasional jungle drum-skitters that crept into the band’s second album. Garbage was one of the first bands I saw live after I started doing this blog, since they had early-afternoon duty at the godawful AmsterJam festival, and it warmed my heart to see that frat-boys were still perfectly willing to wild out to “Only Happy When It Rains” in 2005.
Of course, the album stops working pretty abruptly after it runs out of songs from the band’s first two albums; that’s always the trouble with greatest-hits albums from bands that stopped being popular after two albums. Absolute Garbage comes loaded down with detritus like the band’s theme for The World is Not Enough, which sounds exactly like what might’ve happened if someone had programmed a supercomputer to create a theme-song to a late-90s James Bond movie. It would’ve been interesting to see what might’ve happened if Garbage had retained its ability to convincingly absorb the sounds of whatever particular era they found themselves in, but they were struggling with it by the time they came out with their third album and completely at sea by the fourth. The two new songs tacked on to the collection’s end don’t really fuck around with nu-rave or blog-house or whatever. Instead, the melodramatic strings and drippy vocals show that they’ve totally lost their teeth and that they’re ready to hit the benefit-concert circuit with Melissa Ethridge. Still, those first few tracks brought me back to 1995 so viscerally that it was like I’d caught Hackers on TNT at three in the morning. That’s kind of a fun sensation.
Oh, and there’s also a bonus remix disc, but the Voice doesn’t pay me enough to listen to the Crystal Method remix of “I Think I’m Paranoid.” Sorry.