Records don’t sound like this anymore.
Having grown up through the ’90s, the peak period of the CD, big studio production and, well, the commercial music industry, I feel I have an ear that’s almost attuned to appreciate records that sound massive and expensive.
In fact it wasn’t until my teens and the rise of the “The” bands (The Vines, The Hives, The White Stripes and in particular The Strokes) that I even considered the concepts of garage and lo-fi, which has had a huge influence on the 15 years of contemporary rock music recording that has followed it.
However, from pressing play on the opening track Sometimes, every molecule of Strange Little Birds sounds pristine. The layers upon layers of perfectly engineered sound – just through their textures and tones – instantly project memories to the front of my brain of sitting in the back of a hot sedan on long holiday drives, clutching a discman and listening to Ava Adore or A Perfect Circles’ debut album on repeat.
And through that sense of sonic nostalgia also lies a prism through which I can truly appreciate the legacy a band like Garbage has created over more than two decades. It feels weird to admit, but considering their amazing success, there is an element of the band that feels like perennial underdogs. Garbage are a Hall Of Fame worthy band, with a string of hits that is so thick it should really be called a rope.
And yet I don’t know a single person that would ever nominate them as their favourite band of all time. Is that the result of the fact that they emerged during the crescendo of grunge and commercial alt rock in the mid-90s? Could it be the fact that they were always branded as being a “producer’s band” thanks to the fact that they count arguably the most recognisable producer name of the last 30 years as a member in Butch Vig? It’s a topic worthy of lengthy exploration unto itself.
But here on Strange Little Birds, I find myself feeling dumbstruck as to why, despite everything they’ve achieved, they’re not a band that is celebrated more, or that I myself even listen to more.
After all, this is a fucking brilliant album. And not in an “it’s a mediocre record, but it’s Garbage, so anything they release this far into their career automatically gets a pass as long as it’s not utter shit.” No, this is arguably their best, most consistent and most engaging record of their entire career.
The age old Garbage formula is of course there. Shirley Manson’s hauntingly seductive vocals, trip hop beats, note perfect guitars and bass that sound like they’ve been programmed rather than played. But the amount of succulent pop hooks that float through this record like apples bobbing in a bucket is awe-inspiring.
You can literally sink into it anywhere and you’ll get a face full of juicy musical flesh, from lead single Empty, the brooding Night Drive Loneliness and the anthemic We Never Tell (maybe the most Garbage sounding Garbage song of all time), they all posses melodic and harmonic compositions that are as addictively sweet as they are refreshing to hear time and time again.
It’s long been a criticism of Butch Vig that his work is more polished than a brass door knob, but what used to be the norm now stands as a staggering reminder to a time past, and in many ways what we miss in modern rock. The fact that you can hear every minute piece of music in crystal detail is invigorating.
Perhaps the result of the rise of EDM our ears have become accustomed to such programmed music. But in the mould of Garbage, even the most digitised tone seems to posses a spirit and soul that is tangible and transcendent. Much of that can be attributed to the iconic nature of Manson’s voice, and on Strange Little Birds, she delivers one of the most inspiring tours de force of her vocal career. Her delivery is not only powerful, it’s innovative, it’s exploratory, it’s creative – all the result from what I’ve been lead to believe was a very turn and burn approach to recording and writing her vocal parts in the studio. That spontaneity, or perhaps instinct would be a better word for it, breathes so much life into this album it’s as uplifting as it is heart-breaking – whatever emotion Shirley wants you to feel.
Oh and did I mention that this record fucking rocks? Hard. Strap yourself in for the six minute ride of So We Can Stay Alive, through the deep tissue pulsing of its Muse-like intro, and then ride the distorted power chords and thunderous drumming into the sky as it spits you out an exhilarated mess on the other side – I dare you.
Surprises lie in wait as well. Teaching Little Fingers To Play soundtracks a Red Riding Hood wandering into a deep, dark forest you immediately feel is full of danger, only to deliver one of the prettiest melody lines of the entire record.
And then, to finish it all an epic, barnstorming closer in Amends, named of course ironically because there is absolutely nothing that Garbage is required to make amends for at the end of Strange Little Birds. Except for maybe putting to shame 90% of the music released in 2016 for not being this high a quality.
This is a truly inspiring return from one of the world’s most important creative forces and the fact that they’ve pulled it off so deep in their career, when so many a re comfortable with sitting back on their laurels, is nothing short of astonishing. If it’s not fighting at the top of album of the year contender boards I’ll be furious.