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REVIEW / Garbage: Strange Little Birds

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Strong on mood and atmosphere, and beautifully presented, Garbage’s sixth studio album lacks really memorable songs 

It doesn’t seem so long since Garbage returned from their seven year hiatus, but when the strident and rather excellent Not Your Kind of People was issued over four years ago, we were still anticipating ‘London 2012’ on this side of the pond.

The new album Strange Little Birds is the second on their own STUNVOLUME label and looks to build on the very solid foundations delivered by the previous record. Not Your Kind of People was an assured mix of big sounds and big choruses delivered by tracks like Automatic System Habit, Control and the album highlight Blood For Poppies.
The latter is better than anything on Strange Little Birds and after a week or so playing the new record I can tell you two things – one, it’s a ‘grower’ and two, Garbage appear to have shunned the pleasures derived from fast-paced, melodic industrial pop songs for what could be described as a something a little more ponderous and thematic.

Moody opener Sometimes sets the tone “sometimes I’d rather take a beating / sometimes I’d rather take a punch / I learn more when I am bleeding / you knock me down but I get up”. It’s not too much of a ‘song’ but works pretty well as a starting point and indeed, the band have been opening their live sets with it.

Empty follows and is very much ’the single’ from the album. It’s a good song, but doesn’t match the highs of the previous record never mind give any of the ‘classics’ a run for their money (Only Happy When It Rains, Push It, Special, I Think I’m Paranoid etc.)

Blackout is one of three tracks on the Strange Little Birds that clock in at over six minutes. On the verses, Shirley Manson delivers a breathy vocal against a shuffling rhythm with some angular and atmospheric guitar work. It feels like it’s going to go somewhere special but the ‘chorus’ section disappoints. It will be a recurring complaint with regards to the band’s sixth studio album, that while the song is strong on atmosphere and menace, it doesn’t deliver when it comes to melody and hooks.

If I Lost You has a Violator-esque backing with more of Shirley’s half-spoken verse delivery. To be fair this number has a quite a sweet chorus, but it’s a bit Garbage-light and breezes out as quickly as it breezed in.

Night Drive Loneliness brings to mind the films of David Lynch with Angelo Badalamenti’s wonderful music. Manson even mentions a ‘blue velvet’ dress early on. It sounds seductive, and it is to an extent, although musically and lyrically it doesn’t connect on an emotional level in the way of, say, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing or even Beloved Freak from the last record. It lacks depth.

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The album continues with this subdued soundtrack vibe, telling stories of doomed relationships, isolation and self loathing. Magnetized does the quiet-verse, loud-chorus thing to good effect, but can’t pull itself out of the mire of averageness. Johnny Hates Jazz wrote a better song with the same title back in 2013.

Shirley’s voice is fairly low in the mix of the muddy We Never Tell, and I was aching from her to break out and sing in the upper end of her register when the chorus came, but disappointingly it’s a repetitive, chanty affair and frankly, a bit of a dirge. The album ends on Amends, another track which only really half delivers. The brilliant moody verses give way to a BIG dramatic, noisy chorus which would probably sound amazing sync’d to some kind of end-of-the-world action movie trailer; explosions, people jumping off the top of buildings, children crying, everyday folks battling some seemingly invincible foe, ending with a crash zoom as someone whispers, “let’s end this”… but we don’t have those visuals, just the music.

Shirley has said in interviews that the sonics and tone of this album are a reaction to what she perceives as the ‘happy and shiny’ musical landscape of late. Thats all well and good, but cool words set to cool sounds do not necessarily make great songs, and while setting their sights on a new aural landscape, on many occasions Strange Little Birds suggests the band have taken their eye off the ball, and tripped over what’s right in front of them – they’ve forgotten the basics: write some good tunes.

I’ve always loved Garbage and have never really understood the naysayers. Shirley Manson remains a formidable talent and superior front woman. Having seen the band (minus Butch Vig) live in London only last week, she’s undoubtedly still the glue that holds everything together. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in her role, so singular is her view on the world and the people that inhabit it. But while I admire the intention and enjoy a moody, brooding long-player as much as the next man, Strange Little Birds fails to deliver as an album of great pop songs and isn’t some kind of greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts cinematic masterpiece either. Not only does it not stand up to the career high that is Version 2.0 (a tough ‘ask’, admittedly), it’s fails to improve on, or even match, the last album.

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To end on a positive, the double vinyl edition of Strange Little Birds is packaged beautifully. Ryan Corey and Jeri Heiden took on art direction duties and Jeri’s impressive credits include covers for albums such as Madonna‘s Like A Virgin and a-ha‘s Hunting High and Low. The Strange Little Birds 2LP comes in a gatefold sleeve with the music sequenced across three sides. The fourth side of the vinyl has a beautiful etched design as well as a bonus track (apparently called FWY) unique to this edition. It looks and feels fantastic.

Strange Little Birds is out now.

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Garbage

Strange Little Birds [VINYL]

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Amazon de 6LP coloured vinyl box 16.55
Amazon usa 6LP coloured vinyl box 16.32
Amazon ca 6LP coloured vinyl box 16.00
Amazon uk 6LP coloured vinyl box 18.36
Amazon fr 6LP coloured vinyl box 16.99
Amazon it 6LP coloured vinyl box 17.15
Amazon es 6LP coloured vinyl box 18.69
JPC de 6LP coloured vinyl box 21.24
HMV uk 6LP coloured vinyl box 20.99
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Compare prices and pre-order

Garbage

strange little birds CD

Shop Price GBP Stock
Amazon de 6LP coloured vinyl box 8.27
Amazon usa 6LP coloured vinyl box 5.78
Amazon ca 6LP coloured vinyl box 7.01
Amazon uk 6LP coloured vinyl box 8.46
Amazon fr 6LP coloured vinyl box 7.08
Amazon it 6LP coloured vinyl box 10.18
Amazon es 6LP coloured vinyl box 10.18
JPC de 6LP coloured vinyl box 14.44
HMV uk 6LP coloured vinyl box 9.99
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track_listing

1. Sometimes
2. Empty
3. Blackout
4. If I Lost You
5. Night Drive Loneliness
6. Even Though Our Love Is Doomed
7. Magnetized
8. We Never Tell
9. So We Can Stay Alive
10. Teaching Little Fingers to Play
11. Amends

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32 responses to REVIEW / Garbage: Strange Little Birds

  1. probablyrustin says:

    I haven’t listened to it enough to have much of an opinion yet. Oddly enough it does seem to be getting their best reviews overall since Version 2.0 (http://www.metacritic.com/music/strange-little-birds/garbage), so interesting to hear another take.

    The vinyl package IS beautiful – you missed that there is an unlisted bonus track on the etched D side as well (“FWY”).

  2. Darren Sumner says:

    I have in my hands a copy of the vinyl, which looks stunning! Very nice quality indeed. I have yet to listen to it, abit disappointed now reading this article. I hope I love it

  3. Jon says:

    I posted this comment on a previous page about this album but reposting here as keen to hear views on it. Paul, am interested to know if you’ve listened on vinyl or CD?
    “Has anyone made it to the end of this cd in one sitting? Unbelievably compressed!!!!! This loudness wars b******s has to stop now! This is just awful, I can’t bring myself to play it again so that’s a waste of £12!!! Which I don’t suppose the music industry is bothered about seeing as they’ve already got my cash!
    Would be interested to hear what anyone with the vinyl version thinks of the dynamic range or if anyone has both formats and has done a comparison.”

    • Jon says:

      I feel so strongly about this as I’m so disappointed, I’m going to write to the band/record company etc.

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      To be fair Garbage are the kind of band who use compression as part of their sound. In effect, that’s what they want it to sound like.

      • Jon says:

        True, I just think it’s exaggerated in this case – to my ears it’s so bad I can’t turn the volume up above 1 on the scale and can’t stand it for more than a few minutes at a time. If I thought the vinyl might be a bit better I might consider swapping to that. To be fair to Garbage, it’s not just them, it’s rampant across the board – even on singer songwriter material like James Bay, George Ezra etc – comparing the CD to the vinyl is night and day – and why you would need to compress that sort of music is beyond me!

  4. RJSWinchester says:

    Mr Sinclair, could you please comment on the sound quality? A couple of reviewers on Amazon claim that it’s a ‘Loudness Wars’ victim. Thanks.

    • RJSWinchester says:

      Looks like my question has already been answered!

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      Some tracks like “Empty” sound very compressed, “If I Lost You” doesn’t. This isn’t a remaster of an old great sounding record, so I’m not sure the same arguments apply, to be honest. Having said that “We Never Tell” sounds awful, in terms of sonics.

  5. Daniel says:

    I’m really enjoying the new album, I think it’s better than Not Your Kind Of People, which had great songs but I could never listen to it as a whole album. I’m loving the atmosphere on the new album, I can’t stop listening to Magnetized.

  6. Darren Sumner says:

    Just played my vinyl, and I love it! Shirley and the band are on form. It seems the album is like marmite, love or hate it. I actually love it!

  7. gary says:

    I can only imagine a decent Goodbye Mr Mackenzie set would be extremely complicated licensing wise

  8. Mark Jensen says:

    I can totally see the complaint about lack of really strong catchy chorus melodies, however I am enjoying Strange Little Birds much more as an album than Not Your Kind Of People. The 2012 album is a mix between songs I enjoy and songs I don’t enjoy, and I find it hard to listen straight through, while on the other hand, Strange Little Birds works very well for me straight through. Also, as I believe I’ve commented here previously, I feel that Even Though Our Love Is Doomed is the best song I’ve heard yet this year, and the best song Garbage have created since the tracks from Version 2.0.

  9. Not Available says:

    I basically like Garbage, but I have to say, I just put the new album on and got through 4 ridiculously loud and pointlessly noisy tracks, and I have no interest in hearing the rest of it. Where they used to be tasteful and clever, this is just unlistenable. They need to try writing some SONGS first.

  10. SimonH says:

    I’m surprised how much I like this album, perhaps my expectations were low. The dynamic range is pretty bad but I like the songs enough to get past it. Although I was surprised to find it sounds (to me anyway) worse on an iPod.
    Not sure poor mastering is integral to their sound, a well recorded album with a decent dynamic range can sound any way a band wants it to sound, it’s not an either/or situation. Why can’t they master it well and give us the choice of how loud we want to hear it? I guess most people just don’t care and unless a band chooses to master in a ‘tasteful’ manner the default is a ‘loud’ recording.
    Do agree the Johnny Hates Jazz track was a better song though!

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      There’s not really any way of knowing if a new song on a new album is compressed before or after the mastering. It could be nothing to do with mastering. We only know with reissues because we all have the reference point of our original copies with the very original mastering.

  11. Jon Hank says:

    It’s a terrible album IMO. I’m very disappointed. It’s the sound of a desperate band taking it’s last gulp of air.

  12. Gary Russell says:

    I really loved it – moments where it sounded like Shirely was singing along to Porography era Cure, and I kept thinking the album was crying out for a duet with Numan at times, it very much musically in his current vein.

    • gb says:

      woah gary!!!
      ‘moments where it sounded like Shirely was singing along to Porography era Cure’
      need to hear this asap!! sounds perfect
      (went to berlin to see the dark trilogy gig: pornography/disintegration/bloodflowers)
      side note. they are finally playing ‘Burn’ live ;)

  13. gb says:

    thanks for this Paul. next album I’m buying, liked this part ‘Thats all well and good, but cool words set to cool sounds do not necessarily make great songs’ – totally agree. whilst I like the idea of something being atmospheric and almost like a soundtrack … at the end of the day I really love a good hook in a song. or something that just ‘gets you’ … meant to go see them in London last year but left it so late all the hotels were really expensive. damn … I saw them headlining Reading festival in 1998. fave memory. first song (new to me then, didn’t have the album yet) temptation waits. words ringing out, amazing light show. all hitting me at once.

    ps. love that 4 pic on inner sleeve. that would have made a beautiful cover pic.

  14. memoryboy says:

    I am listening to this now, will give a short review of my own soon. I am listening to the track “Empty” for the first time as I write this. It’s on mp3, I can tell even from a 320kbps mp3 that the compression is pretty bad. Not sure what to think yet….

    • jsd says:

      I’m listening to the “Mastered for iTunes” version right now and it sounds about what I’d expect from a modern “noise/rock/electronics” album. Yes, it’s very compressed and distorted, but when have Garbage *not* been like that? I think it’s a deliberate stylistic choice. Doesn’t bother me.

      As far as the quality of the songwriting, I’ve only listened to the first two but I liked them just fine.

  15. Wes says:

    There is no doubt that compression is being used to normalize the sound on large numbers of releases so that playback is more optimal for the way they assume most people will listen– through shitty bean-sized earbuds, via their also mostly shitty sounding smartphones. They could do an album mix and a streaming mix, and then master each from there, but I suspect the compression is added early in the mixing/mastering chain, and that the feeling is that those that really care about good sound are an insignificant share of their audience/market most of the time, so unless the artists themselves step up, the labels are going to err on the side of the bottom-line.

  16. Craig says:

    I must disagree with some of the comments and parts of the review. The album has several very strong ‘hooky’ songs that certainly for me at least, connect on an emotional and entertainment level. Oh and also for the mastering folks out there, I’ve listened to the CD and the mp3 extensively (not the vinyl) and hear no distortion or issues. It comes across as loud to a degree but that person who remarked he can’t listen past 1…er…is insane frankly as this album thrives when played loud. Or as loud as is necessary. I can’t comment on compression but for a Garbage album and listening to it myself I find it a very pleasurable and above avergae release for this band. Quit looking for issues unless you know exactly how it was meant to sound. Like someone else said…if this was a remaster, then fair enough…but this is a new album so unless you were in the studio when it was being recorded, who are you to say how it’s meant to sound?

    • Pieruk says:

      We are fans of the band that would like to be able to listen to more than 2 minutes of Garbage’s last two albums, and we don’t need to have been in the studio to know that it isn’t the way it sounded during the recording process because dynamic compression is applied during the mastering process not during the recording sessions nor the mixing sessions. No sound engineer in their right mind would work with sound files brick-walled to that level, they need headroom to work. Also if that was the way it was supposed to be the vinyl edition would have the same dynamic range. It doesn’t because a different master is needed to print the vinyl. I know, most people don’t care, it’s a lost cause. Well, at least you can enjoy this album.

  17. Craig says:

    May I just add that if I am hearing any so-called distortion or ‘muddiness’ then I’d call it intentional. Garbage if you’re familair with them have a very distinctive sound that is usually highly processed, layered and tinkered with, both to the instruments and Shirley’s vocals.

    • Pieuk says:

      @Craig
      The dynamic compression is maddening, it is just the way things are done now and it’s a pity. All their reissues are highly compressed thus unlistenable, NYKOP is as well so I’m not surprised this last one is. I understand perfectly all the people that are complaining about that loudness war, using distortion and effect doesn’t have to lead to an overly compressed dynamic, these are different things. If it doesn’t bother you, well, good on you, personally I would be worried for the health of your ears.

  18. Shugless says:

    As a fan from hearing Vow many moons ago gotta say I disagree with the “it’s a grower” statement it had me before track 2 had even started & after several plays I’d go as far to say it’s right up there with the bands best. Oh & clearly the distortion & muddying sound is a deliberate effect.

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