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beautifulgarbage (Almo Sounds/Interscope)


What the hell happened to Butch Vig? Ten years ago, you couldn't have overestimated his influence or abilities. He produced not only Nirvana's Nevermind but also the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream, the only two grunge albums that have proved indelible. Then, just as alt-rock seemed to be wilting, he formed Garbage. He foresaw the floor breaking under the weight of Bush and Live and moved to higher ground, making sexy, amorphous noise-pop that used dance production techniques without compromising its rock roots. Even Garbage wannabes (Ruby, Transister) were more tolerable than grunge's dilutions

In all fairness, the man has nothing left to prove to us, but does beautifulgarbage have to sound so heartbreakingly dull? It's as though Garbage's bag of tricks has come up empty. "Till the Day I Die" makes the mistake of trying to scratch with frontwoman Shirley Manson's voice and comes off like an autistic remix. Pop songs that the band once should have hit out of the park, such as "Breaking Up the Girl," sound as if they're by Letters to Cleo. Only two tracks rise above the morass: "Can't Cry These Tears Anymore" boasts some great knockoff girl-group chimes and harmonies, and the caffeinated "Cherry Lips (Go, Baby, Go)" uses perky synths like a more switched-on Ladytron.

Despite its flaws, the record might have been salvageable if Manson was game, but too often her lyrics are flat and her performances sappy. In the main, beautifulgarbage is fraught with the sort of longing breakup balladry and dewy sentiment that Garbage once avoided (or at least twisted). When Manson unwraps the cliché of asking endless contradictory questions in "Shut Your Mouth," it sounds like a Spinal Tap reduction of the Garbage blueprint. "I just don't care anymore," she sings later; it's the one heartfelt-sounding moment on the record. Her apathy is understandable: As demonstrated by the success of Britney and countless others, a pretty woman aware of her sexual power will always find work. She can phone it in like the rest of her band and come off smelling like a rose. But for Vig, the damage is done. The tech-rock of Garbage was his loophole to invigorate alternative rock and commodify nihilism. That loophole has just collapsed.