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Manson stops the rot Add to ...


At Kool Haus

in Toronto on Friday

Even though Garbage does have four members (five including the added touring bassist), the spotlight at Kool Haus was only large enough for one: singer Shirley Manson. It wasn't such a strange decision to keep the guys in the band in the shadows. After all, who has more visual panache: some balding, 40ish blokes from Wisconsin or one spry, savvy Scottish blonde?

Luckily, Manson had enough charisma to carry the whole lot of them through Friday night's 90-minute set, the first in the band's new North American tour. Her bright red hair of yore is now short and peroxide-friendly. In her white tank top, she looked like the comic-book heroine Tank Girl if she were played by a young Marlene Dietrich.

Though her lyrics often tell of self-loathing and vulnerability, her on-stage body language was commanding. On Friday night, she prowled across the stage, weaving and dodging like a boxer. Manson's self-deprecating wit also added much to her charm.

At one point in the evening, she asked if anyone had seen the special on Garbage on Behind the Music, an episode that lacked the VH-1/MuchMoreMusic show's usual amount of salacious content. "Correct me if I'm wrong," Manson said, "but it's slightly dull."

Indeed, if Manson were not front and centre, Garbage would be more than slightly dull. The band began as the brainchild of three musicians and producers, including Butch Vig, famed producer of Nirvana's landmark album Nevermind. Garbage's slick merger of heavy guitar-rock and sample-heavy electronica would have seemed overcalculated if not for Manson's vim and vigour.

The first two albums sold eight million copies, but like many alternative-rock bands that reigned over the nineties, Garbage may have passed its best-before date -- its third and most recent disc, Beautifulgarbage, slipped off the charts with rude haste.

The paucity of new ideas on Beautifulgarbage was emphasized by Friday's set list, which was weighted toward older material. Thankfully, much of it was thrilling, with the band displaying its flair for resituating classic pop sounds in shiny new contexts. In the concert's opening song, Push It,from the 1998 disc Version 2.0, a pristine pop melody borrowed from the Beach Boys' Don't Worry Baby got beefed up by a throbbing beat.

On Temptation Waits and Stupid Girl, the band remodelled the attitude-filled new-wave disco of Blondie. If Debbie Harry is one clear antecedent for Manson, then the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde is another, and the bouncy 1998 hit Special pilfered from two Pretenders hits, Brass in Pocket and Talk of the Town.

Androgyny and Parade, two of the better songs off Beautifulgarbage, emulated the vivid and densely structured rock on David Bowie's Lodger and Scary Monsters. In the best Garbage songs, traditional rock dynamics are enhanced with the use of high technology, or at least the canny deployment of bleeps and bloops.

Though sufficiently sleek at high speeds, Garbage faltered whenever the pace let up. A performance of Beautifulgarbage's overwrought So Like a Rose, which featured Manson playing acoustic guitar, confirmed why ballads are not Garbage's forte, and a cover of the Rolling Stones' Wild Horses was equally lumpen.

But such missteps -- and the fact that few songs stray far from the formula Garbage concocted seven years ago -- are easily forgiven because Manson is such a magnetic frontperson. Unfortunately for Behind the Music's scandal-hungry producers, it's a situation that seems to sit well with the rest of the group.

When the singer cheekily offered the microphone to bandmate Duke Erikson, the embarrassed guitarist was utterly at a loss for words. "This is why I'm the one who does all the talking," Manson said.

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