Thursday, August 16, 2012

Garbage - Not Your Kind Of People [album review]

Released in May
Whilst touring in support of 2005's Bleed Like Me release, Garbage was coming apart at the seams due to road burnout and an increasing unhappiness with the unrealistic expectations and direction from their record label. The once-tight unit (comprised of lead singer Shirley Manson, guitarists/keyboardists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker, and drummer/mega-producer Butch Vig) turned their frustrations in on each other, which eventually led to a lengthy hiatus before returning in May with the independently released Not Your Kind Of People. Whether or not the lengthy time off has had a significant positive impact on the quality level of studio album number five via the oft acknowledged "recharged batteries effect" is hard to measure, since Garbage has yet to release a bad album. Certainly, they haven't lost a step since the muscular Bleed Like Me, an album unjustly criticized for its supposed lack of edge.
Edge definitely isn't in short supply on Not Your Kind Of People, sidling up with the unabashed pop melodies which distill into Garbage's unique electro-rock sound. Heavier and darker tracks like "Automatic Systematic Habit" (featuring a "White Room"-ish intro), "Battle In Me", "Control", "I Hate Love", "Man On A Wire", and bonus tracks "Show Me" and the frenetic "The One" (the latter featuring a self-referencing "terminator" mention from Manson, who dabbled in acting on TV's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles during her hiatus) sound brawny and inspired. "Control" stands out as one of the album's best songs, deploying a gentle, fake-out intro before settling into its dirty groove, anchored by the Garbage signature fat bass sound that populates most of the album's tracks, along with a great harmonica riff that lends the song a swampy blues sound reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks". Not Your Kind Of People's poppier fare consists of (no pun intended) first single "Blood For Poppies" (whose interesting lyrical narrative comes from the perspective of a drug operative stranded in Afghanistan), "Big Bright World", and "Felt", but even the band's more melodic material is usually informed by a darker undercurrent, as demonstrated on the verse sections of "Blood For Poppies" - they sound positively grim when compared to the track's sunny choruses. Three tracks get the moody ballad treatment, something Garbage usually excels at; two of them are great ("Sugar" and "Beloved Freak"), while the awful title track lacks spark and gets lost in its psychedelic leanings, counting as the album's only misstep.
The most common complaints I've read from Not Your Kind Of People's mixed reviews (it has a 63/100 rating on Metacritic) is that the band has played it safe, along with the criticism that has dogged them since they debuted, that Garbage's trademark heavy reliance on studio/technological trickery robs their material of any soul or heart. I can't deny that the album isn't much of a departure from their past work - the cynical, defiant, and angst-heavy lyrics that also include celebrations of outsiders and freaks, studio production up the wazoo, and that dark/sunny dynamic to their songwriting all sound comfortably familiar. That well-worn "overproduction" knock isn't valid to my ears, however - the whirlwind of effects and studio manipulation, featuring heavily processed vocals and lines blurred between where real instruments and technology intersect, are as vital to Garbage's sound as Manson's vocals and don't come close to suffocating the material, acting as mere enhancers that make this strong collection of songs more interesting. Not Your Kind Of People and its production prowess (it was self-produced - along with Vig, Erikson and Marker are adept studio wizards) is a veritable headphone heaven listening experience and a technological polar opposite to the digital-free, back-to-the-garage-and-lay-it-down-on-old-school-tape approach undertaken on Vig's last project, as a producer on the Foo Fighters' superlative Wasting Light album.
Rating: B+
Mediaboy Musings related posts: Garbage Toronto concert review (from May), Foo Fighters' Wasting Light album review (from April 2011)