Garbage, Liz Phair, and Sleater-Kinney Strike Back

by Marshall Bowden

The sound of a slot machine cashing out–maybe a sly reference to “Money”–and then this: “The men who rule the world/have made a fuckin’ mess…” Garbage is back, and Shirley Manson is pissed off–about the state of our  world, about the degradation of our humanity and how we never learn a damn thing.

 No Gods, No Masters Deluxe is a 2-CD recording that sustains itself over the course of nearly an hour and a half of music. Most deluxe versions aren’t really worth it, but in this case I’d definitely spring for it. With cover versions of Bowie’s “Starman” and Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” as well as the original song “Destroying Angels” that features vocals by Exene Cervenka and John Doe of the L.A. punk band X. 

It’s not just Shirley that’s revved up–the band is up to the challenge of finding ways to channel Manson’s vocal rage, wrapping up some of their signature sounds from their first two records in a blanket of current and future sounds that suggests, a quarter of a century in, that this is a band that’s far from done. And yeah, Garbage is a band, maybe the template for how a band can work in these times when we hear, over and over, that bands aren’t really the thing. I was truly startled when Duke Erikson’s electric guitar careened in over Manson’s singing on “Wolves”–both times it happened. 

This is not a band that is falling apart or trying to recapture former glories, but they aren’t completely reinventing themselves, either. Manson describes No Gods No Masters as “a critique of the rise of capitalist short-sightedness, racism, sexism, and misogyny across the world.” There are so many wonderful songs on the record and you can hear the band being influenced by many of the sounds of  other acts. For example, after interviewing Liz Phair for her The Jump podcast Manson was inspired to pitch her vocal on “Flipping the Bird” in the same lower range as Phair, and the song also features bass parts that are sometimes reminiscent of Peter Hook. 

Liz Phair made a name for herself in 90s indie rock before kind of disappearing behind an attempt at pop diva production, a move that dented her career momentum like none other since Shelby Lynne followed up I Am Shelby Lynne with Love , Shelby

Soberish is a real songwriters’ record by someone who is adept at looking at her experiences and drawing the most transformative moments out–“There’s so many ways to fuck up a life” she sings in the opening of “Good Side, “I try to be original.” 

If Phair were Lou Reed, this would be her New Sensations. That’s a salient point because she calls out Reed in “Hey Lou,” a song with the same acerbic, cynical, bitchy qualities of some of Reed’s best work. It works because it’s clear that Phair has real affection for the object of her barbs. 

Soberish doesn’t sound like Phair’s earliest records (Exile In Guyville, Whipsmart), but it exhibits the same songwriting skill. As Phair has aged and sobered up, she has continued to be a songwriter whose voice is original and who doesn’t structure her songs in a conventional way. Soberish is her best album since 1998s Whitechocolatespaceegg, another record where she just seemed to effortlessly toss off these great songs.

But at age 54, her songs bear the mark of experience. “It’s not magical. It’s because you decide not to be defeated,” she told The Washington Post recently.  “You decide to take what you’ve got and turn it into something. Soberish, to me, is a lot about the beginnings of things, the endings of things, the state between two states. . . . I’m interested in transitional, undefined territory, and I think that is an older person’s game.”

I guess that as someone a few years older than Liz, I may be perfectly situated for the messages that Soberish offers.  I have to say that this album brought me to tears a few times and brought a warm glow of opiate nostalgia the rest of the time that makes me feel like it will be on my CD player (yes, I will buy it, and I will burn it so that I can listen conveniently as well) a lot.

Two of the tenderest moments on the record come on ballads that are recorded in a stripped down manner, without the electronic blurps and drum machines of the rest of the album (a sound which grew on me with repeated listens). The impossibly beautiful “Lonely Street” is a yearning, soaring song that reminds me of some of the Carpenters best feelin’ blue songs (“Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Goodbye to Love”). 

The other  is “Sheridan Road,” a tribute to driving along the North Shore of Chicago’s suburbs at night and into the city:

You show me your places, I’ll show you mine

The throes of our youth and where life was unkind

Winding down Sheridan, the wind in our hair

We notice the new, but the old is still there

Merging, converging once we hit Lake Shore Drive

Oh, look, here’s another female group or performer sounding like they’re ‘not supposed to’–Sleater-Kinney released Path of Wellness, their first album without drummer Janet Weiss since 1996’s Call The Doctor. Weiss was a formidable force in the band, and it was pointed out to me by a veterinarian fan I worked with back in the early 2000s, that Weiss was a special drummer, a secret sauce that made the band tick the way it did. The way that I’ve heard people talk about Ginger Baker or Charlie Watts. So, you might expect long time fans to be critical about the band without Weiss and about Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker deciding to change things up. And you’d be right.

And listen, I get it. But Sleater-Kinney is moving forward as essentially a duo, supported by touring drummer Angie Boylan as well as several Portland-based guest drummers, and they are taking advantage of that to adjust their sound, a process they began to explore on 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold, and which resulted in Weiss leaving the band after it was recorded. As a result, the Sleater-Kinney of Path of Wellness does not sound like the Sleater-Kinney of Dig Me Out. That’s a fact, just as the Velvet Underground of Loaded didn’t sound like the Velvet Underground of White Light White Heat. That certainly doesn’t make Loaded a poor album, and the same can be said of Path of Wellness

From the title track opener, the band sounds as tight as ever, with Brownstein and Tucker’s vocals sounding just like they always have. The keyboard figure that weaves its way throughout has a certain tech rock buzz, and I found myself thinking about the female alt-rock bands I listened to in the ’90s, the ones that didn’t make it: Luscious Jackson, Letters to Cleo, and the much beloved Veruca Salt, a band that didn’t get its due as “they became one of the most harshly criticized bands of the post-Nirvana alternative rock era, despite being one of the first female-fronted outfits to achieve stardom in that genre,” according to Stephen Thomas Erlewine. 

It’s completely ridiculous, because the group, both in its original format with Louise Post and Nina Gordon and after Gordon left, when Post continued the band with a revolving group of musicians, recorded several solid albums that don’t sound radically different from their amazing debut, American Thighs. How many good female musicians and the bands they played in had their careers derailed by having to deal with a consistently harsh environment in every facet of the music industry (recording, playing live, touring, getting paid, getting records played, promotion)? 

Liz Phair wrote a book about her experiences in the record industry in the 2019 book Horror Stories. Many of these tales revolve around men who belittled, lied to, and attempted to sleep with her both before she found fame and afterwards. “Men,” she wrote, “we need you to recognize that your casual, disrespectful attitudes toward women give tacit permission to scumbags who are acting on what most men assume is harmless banter.”

Phair, Shirley Manson, and Sleater-Kinney have all survived the early phases of their careers and now they are back making records that they want to make. Records where they call the shots. I’ll be listening to these discs all summer, and I’ll be pulling out my Veruca Salt albums as well. Raise your glass!

1 thought on “Garbage, Liz Phair, and Sleater-Kinney Strike Back

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.