Last year, Garbage proclaimed themselves 20 Years Queer in honour of their 1995 self-titled debut outing. But for all their declaration of interest in difference and darkness, there is nought much that’s queer about this most efficient pop/rock machine, with a radio-ready alternative rock sound so streamlined that it’s good to roll out again and again without particularly sounding dated.
The band themselves – Edinburgh’s Shirley Manson and her three Wisconsin amigos Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker – appear to have re-emerged from cryogenic suspension in order to challenge the shiny happy pop kids of today with their sixth album, but if Garbage aspire to blacken the mood, they succeed only in delivering a most manicured psychodrama.
Strange Little Birds (***) ticks some grungey, gothic sonic boxes without actually being grungey or gothic. For all the group talk of not fussing over the sound of this album, the end result is a carefully finessed product. Current single Empty is, for better or worse, instantly recognisable as their handiwork, a testament to their strong musical identity, which will push the right buttons for the fans who just want to hear something that sounds a bit like what’s gone before.
Sometimes opens with 30 seconds of graceful orchestration, before the claustrophobic industrial backing judders into life and Manson intones sultrily that “sometimes I’d rather take a beating…I learn more when I bleeding”. But she is so in control of her vocal throughout this collection that, while her lyrics intimate suffering, her delivery lacks the vulnerability she seems keen to communicate.
By their own admission, Garbage are trading here in atmosphere rather than songs, and that atmosphere is generally understated. Even Though Our Love Is Doomed is five minutes of delayed satisfaction which eventually builds to a blissed-out conclusion, while If I Lost You is softly executed, like one of those broody Muse electro-infused numbers. Unlike Muse, their mean machine contemporaries, they never let their hair down, not even to enjoy the 80s electro rock-infused Night Drive Loneliness.
ABC mainman Martin Fry has no problem with extroversion. In 1982, he put his romantic dilemmas at the heart of the classic pop confection The Lexicon Of Love and now revisits its themes through older eyes on this sequel (***). He has got some of the old gang back together for the job – string arranger Anne Dudley and video director Julien Temple at any rate. Dudley’s strings sigh sweetly or twinkle melodramatically against the carefree Euro disco twirl of Viva Love or the smooth Bacharachian pop of Ten Below Zero, with the occasional spoken word interjection from Fry. The whole affair is calculated to be sumptuous but without the same calibre of songs one wonders how its aspirational retro glamour will play in austerity Britain this time round?
Meanwhile, far from the madding crowd, Music Makes Me is a project conceived by the Argyll-based Walking Theatre Company as a way of bringing artists together in a rural region where it is too easy to become creatively isolated. Eight local musicians were invited to collaborate on songs inspired by the landscape, with former Superstar frontman Joe McAlinden overseeing the recordings. The songs on In The Wild Country (***) won’t set the heather alight -– most being as calming as a country walk – but there’s an almost holistic comfort in Joy Dunlop’s Is Duine Me and a satisfying, wistful melancholy running through the gentle folk pop and country balladeering of this haunting collection, available from www.musicmakesme.scot. Fiona Shepherd
CLASSICAL: Steven Osborne plays Feldman and Crumb | Rating: ***** | Hyperion
Enter the world of mysterious pianistic colour. Steven Osborne has been working away recently at the ambient music of Morton Feldman and George Crumb, some of it appearing in his live recitals, but here on disc is something to take time over, to listen to again and again. At the heart of the recording is Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas. Inspired by Giotto’s 14th century frescoes for a Padua chapel, these short pieces range in style from quasi-Debussy and the opening Messiaen-Like bell chords, to Crumb’s own original exploration of piano timbre – the magical lute-like strumming of the strings in Canticle of the Night, or the near-hypnotic charm of the Adoration of the Magi. The longest track is the last – Feldman’s Palais de Mari, typically soft, muted, timeless, and in Osborne’s tasteful interpretation, mesmerisingly sublime. A triumph of the extraordinary. Ken Walton
JAZZ: Stu Brown: Twisted Toons Vol.2 | Rating: **** | Cadiz Music
Just when you thought that was all, folks, back comes Glasgow drummer Stu Brown with musical mayhem based on classic cartoon scores of Carl Stalling, Scott Bradley and others. It It sounds a wheeze and is vividly redolent of a cinematic golden age, but involves some seriously sharp playing from Brown and a band of such familiar names as trumpeter Tom MacNiven, reedsmen Brian Molley and Martin Kershaw, Paul Harrison on piano and bassist Mario Caribe.
Some tracks are merely brief interludes, such as Like Strange or the familiar Loony Tunes theme. Elsewhere, Powerhouse, arranged by Brown in Carl Stalling style, romps through inexorable creep and strut and big-band swing, while Goblins in the Steeple features some fine sax and trumpet work. Dixieland Droopy allows the band to cut loose with suitably New Orleans vigour. Jim Gilchrist