Fri April 8, Paramount, 8 pm, $29.50.
When Garbage FIrst started making headlines in 1994, they seemed like a terrible idea on the surface: a slick, pop-punk-dance outfit conceived by three puffy-chested producers (Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker), fronted by a pouty-mouthed, Scottish vixen, and christened with one of the worst band names ever. Yet 11 years and four albums later, the majority of their work stands up impressively, thanks largely to the formidable presence of their fiercely eloquent frontwoman Shirley Manson.
"Supervixen," the first track from their eponymous debut, is an attention-grabbing, seductively paced series of commands issued with Manson's signature deadpan delivery. She dryly suggests that her suitor "Come down to my house/Stick a stone in your mouth," assuring her subject that he "can always pull out if you like it too much." Such wickedly aggressive sexual imagery is her lyrical calling card and Vig's larger-than-life production is the requisite scaffolding to support her desires.
But hot talk and major-label production tones get old fast, and Garbage's first outing would've worn thin rapidly if it wasn't for Manson's ability to sketch out her carnal scenarios with an impressive sense of restraint, a skill that could probably be attributed to her age. At 38, she's smart enough to know everything's sexier when the picture isn't painted too vividly. She also exhibits a delightful sadistic streak, telling one poor soul she's come to "cut you up… knock you down… tear your little world apart," while tempering her threats with a believable degree of weakness, whispering at the end that she "can't stop when it comes to you," an ambiguous refrain that demonstrates her uncanny ability to mix toughness and vulnerability while retaining the authenticity of her voice. What's more, she has a ribald sense of humor and is particularly adept at poking fun of self-loathing types who revel in their own black moods, most notably on "I'm Only Happy When It Rains," a cheeky satire about glum-minded characters who can only find satisfaction when misery is raining down upon them. Deborah Harry is the only other female pop artist of her stature to execute this balance so well.
On the visual side, the band's videos showcase their material nicely, but also highlight the compelling nature of Manson's subtle-but-smokin' sex appeal. She's an arrestingly attractive, petite woman with magnetic hazel eyes, a shock of red hair, and more potently, zero desire to don hot pants or push her tits up to her chin. All her erotic charisma comes through in her lyrical twists and her relaxed posture. In the video for "Supervixen," she wears a big, furry red coat and practical sneakers, but is no less commanding in leading her band. In "Stupid Girl"--a brutal admonishment of a friend who's behaving like a doormat--she is equally captivating in sensible flats and a long-sleeved, high-necked dress. Paris Hilton would undoubtedly disagree, but that's hot.
Deft handling of lascivious lyrics and the ability to seduce a mainstream audience without coming across as a trite pop tart aren't the only traits Manson shares with Blondie's legendary leader. With a rich, silvery lilt that swings easily between intimate, husky whisperings and sky-scraping, confident wailings, Manson's clear alto and sweet swagger (particularly on 1998's Version 2.0) recall Harry's best moments from Parallel Lines without sounding derivative or retro, thanks to the fully modern presence of Erikson, Marker, and Vig (say what you want about his production techniques, he's no slouch behind a drum kit).
Truth be told, though, recordingwise they blew it last time around. 2001's Beautiful Garbage was too pristinely polished--even by their own radio-friendly standards--and they had softened some of their hard-rock edges, a disappointing modification that sucked a lot of air out of Manson's inherent appeal. Thankfully, this was a singular misstep: 2005's Bleed Like Me is a step back in the right direction, with Manson declaring that she wants to "hear you call out my name and then burn up in flames," while her backing boys crank out disco-fied distortion with all the vigor a tireless supervixen could ask for. Even better, advance reports indicate they're completely delivering the goods on stage, so if that Blondie reunion show last year left you yearning for the real deal, a live audience with Ms. Manson and company might be just what you need.