Judge Kerry Birmingham takes a look at this retrospective of the band whose union finally brought to a close the bloody, generations-long rivalry between Scotland and Wisconsin.
"Well, at least they're honest!"—My friend's septuagenarian father, after hearing we were "going to see Garbage," November, 1998.
Despite its pedigree, Garbage was initially far from a sure-thing musical success story. Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker had been working for years as high-profile producers, collectively working on pretty much every band you'd heard of in the last 20 years. Vig, in fact, was about as high profile as record producers get, having worked with an obscure Seattle trio whose name escapes me on some record called "Nevermind" (only Steve Albini possibly rivaled Vig for '90s grunge production cachet). Their chosen sound—dense, heavily effect-driven pop dance-rock—seemed a bit strange for the architects of the '90s rock sound, as did their choice of lead singer, Shirley Manson, of the mostly forgotten Scottish band, Angelfish. And, oy! That name! "Garbage"! Sounded like easy fodder for review headlines.
But it worked. Marker, Vig, and Erikson wisely stuck to the background, noodling around in their Madison, Wisconsin-based studio, letting Manson become the Capital-R Rock Star of the group. Manson, all pale skin, red hair, and alternately prickly and coquettish, quickly became the charismatic frontwoman. Her lyrics, laid over "the boys'" beats, were confessional and confrontational, and catchy to boot. More than a few hits were made, presumably some money was made, and the band earned a loyal following over the course of the next ten years. Going on "hiatus" in 2006, Garbage has released the obligatory "best of" package, Absolute Garbage, and this companion DVD, featuring most of their music videos and a retrospective documentary.
Despite what the word "Absolute" in its title might imply, this is not a comprehensive collection of the band's videos. Several late-period singles are notably absent, such as "Androgyny" and "Breaking Up the Girl," as are alternate videos of songs such as "When I Grow Up" (the version included here is a surprisingly by-the-book concert performance video). Whatever the glaring omissions, there's still a lot to take in, and the videos that are included here run the gamut from high-concept, lush extravaganzas to edgy, low-budget grit. In fact, the videos, presented chronologically (though there is a "Random" menu option), serve as an impromptu crash course in music video trends from 1995 to today. Befitting the musical climate of the day, the breakout singles "Vow," "Only Happy When It Rains," and "Stupid Girl" have a calculated grunge veneer of black mascara, precisely distressed film, and what-the-hell? imagery that were indicative of rock video of the era. No surprise, since all three videos were helmed by Samuel Bayer, who specialized in a kind of "rotten candy apple" style that made his videos distinctive and heavily identified with rock of the era (thanks to another video on Bayer's resumé, a little known B-side called "Smells Like Teen Spirit."). Bayer's sensibilities dovetailed nicely with Manson, whose vamping was equal parts purr and sneer and went a long way towards putting the band over (indeed, Manson is never less than front and center in any of these videos).
Another seminal video director, Stephane Sednaoui, helmed "Queer," "Milk," and, later, "You Look So Fine," and marks the band's foray into more narrative music videos. With few exceptions, Garbage's videos tend to the surreal and slightly off-putting, whether it's the Technicolor video game ambience of "Special," the invisible band featured in "Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)," or the S&M nurse of "Bleed Like Me." The list of directors reads like a Who's Who of notable music video directors—next to Bayer and Sednaoui are familiar names like Sophie Muller, Matthew Ralston, and Joseph Kahn—and the videos here, many of which haven't been commercially available since VHS was still king, reflect both the shift in video trends and within the band itself, from its commercial peak of "The World Is Not Enough" (still my favorite James Bond theme) to the darker, rockier punch of the Lou Reed riff "Bleed Like Me." Watching these videos, you can see Manson morph from grunge diva (is there a more concise summation of '90s rock than "Only Happy When It Rains"?) to glossy dance-rock chanteuse. Only the production quirks and Manson's lively presence remain consistent (even if Manson's ill-advised beautifulgarbage-era peroxide locks don't). With few exceptions, these videos capture a good batch of unique, clever songs with unique, clever clips to go with them.
The centerpiece of Absolute Garbage is an hour-plus documentary (apparently titled "Thanks for Your, Uhh, Support," though it's never identified as this outside of the packaging). Thorough but not unflattering, the documentary is like an episode of Behind the Music, with all the sensational bits removed. More an acknowledgement of the band's influence and career, it glosses over Manson's several small scandals (mercifully tame compared to today's Paris-poclaypse and Lohan-ageddon) and intra-band conflict. The documentary also skirts around the band's diminishing commercial and artistic returns on its latter albums, despite several strong singles on lackluster records. All told, though, it's a fairly comprehensive retrospective of Garbage's career. It's nice to see home movie clips shot by the band itself, and sobering to see Kurt Loder introduce the band on an MTV News segment, showing just how long this band has been around. Jack White of The White Stripes and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters even make cameo appearances.
Picture quality is uniformly excellent, with aspect ratios ranging from full- to widescreen where available and appropriate (such as in more cinematic pieces like "The World Is Not Enough"), though none of it is anamorphic. Sound quality is fine, with nice mixes of each track, though audio options are limited and, frustratingly, hard to determine (the disc has no audio options).
This is by no means a definitive portrait of the band's career; that will have to wait for a future collection, apparently ("Indispensible Garbage"?). As a companion piece to the CD compilation of the same name, Absolute Garbage fulfills that function and serves as a primer for casual fans who might have vague recollections of Manson's alluring sneer or "Stupid Girl." For fans (which I admittedly am), it's missing too much material to be counted as a definitive document, but the inclusion of so much long unavailable material is hard to pass up. This compilation is like the band itself, a collection of odds and ends that somehow adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It's possible that "hiatus" isn't merely a euphemism and the band will be back in the studio and creatively refreshed, but if and until that time comes this isn't all that bad of a farewell.
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