* * * GARBAGE, "Beautifulgarbage", Interscope
Same old Garbage? Maybe so, but the third album from singer Shirley Manson and the three rock-heads who surround her with sound celebrates sheer sonic splendor with such exuberance that it's hard not to be seduced again.
Guilty pleasure? Maybe so, but like the year's other great guilty pleasure, "Weezer," "Beautifulgarbage" transcends the classic pure-pop touchstones it mines, generating moments of genuine feeling.
Smoke and mirrors? It might seem that way, but in packing the album with twists that keep you bracingly off balance, Garbage reinstates a largely lost rock art, and its tendency to go for broke and pile it on seems more the result of a healthy love of excess than an attempt to cover an empty core.
The band's mix of everything from Spector to break beats, synth-pop hooks to theatrical Bowie blueprint, actually works to bring out the strong sentiments and attitudes in such songs as "Shut Your Mouth," a sarcastic rant on the way a celebrity is ravaged by fans and media, and "Androgyny," a go-for-it endorsement of sexual freedom.
Manson doesn't have the range and power of Annie Lennox or Chrissie Hynde, the two singers she most evokes, but she's a good fit here, and she even maintains her presence amid the band's formidable environments.
She's better off in the thick of things than out front and naked, but she negotiates the ballads with some finesse, especially the gentle finale, "So Like a Rose." That track is uncharacteristically restrained, but when it comes to Garbage, more is definitely better.
-- Richard Cromelin
* * 1/2 JA RULE, "Pain Is Love", Def Jam
"Thug in Love" might be a better title for this third album from the gravel-voiced New York rapper, who gets mixed results from a set of thuggish tunes geared toward the throngs of ladies supposedly vying for his attention.
The single "Livin' It Up" best exemplifies Ja Rule's gangster-influenced ballads, which court radio play as intently as they do those ladies. Borrowing its groove from Stevie Wonder's "Do I Do," this tune is neither profound nor innovative, yet its bounciness makes it thoroughly satisfying. "I'm Real," his popular duet with Jennifer Lopez, is one of the album's stronger songs, as Rule's rough voice and Lopez's sugary tones make a surprisingly appealing blend.
When Rule veers from romantic overtures, he's less effective. The bland "The Inc" features many of his less talented label mates, while the predictable "Worldwide Gangsta" teams Ja Rule with R. Kelly's wannabe rap friends Boo and Gotti. These cuts simply recycle hard-core themes without adding any clever phrasings or creative beat work to compensate for their ordinariness. It's telling that Ja Rule, who earned his stripes as a hard-core rapper, now makes better love than war.
-- Soren Baker
* * * 1/2 THE HANDSOME FAMILY, "Twilight", Carrot Top
Brett and Rennie Sparks, the husband-and-wife team from Chicago who go by the name the Handsome Family, give us songs that would be in heavy rotation on any radio station hip enough to include the individuality and craft of such a wonderfully eclectic group of artists as Tom Waits, the Carter Family and Grandaddy. In other words, don't expect the Sparks to show up on "TRL" anytime soon.
For those willing to search them out, however, they are precisely the kind of pop adventurers who give musical diets valuable seasoning. Their key songs have an edginess that is all the more unsettling because Brett sings Rennie's lyrics in such a deadpan style.
In "The Snow White Diner," the opening track on the pair's fifth album, we hear about a man eating hash browns while cars outside are honking and lights on the bridge are flashing. A woman has killed herself and her two children because she has lost her job and doesn't want them to be poor.
But all the narrator can do is watch two old women at another table. They are eating liver and onions and laughing so hard that they are banging on the tabletop. It turns out that the women are deaf, and oblivious to the commotion. The incident sets up a philosophical punch line for the song.
Brett's music is nicely melodic, and the stories are just as unexpected on the other tracks of "Twilight," which ends with "Peace in the Valley Once Again," a song that celebrates the closing of the last shopping mall in America. The Handsome Family sometimes operates on a rather strange frequency, but it's a gifted and unique pop vision. Tune them in.
-- Robert Hilburn
* * Spiritualized, "Let It Come Down," Arista. After the beautiful, arcing orbit of 1997's "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space," leader Jason Pierce now seems unable to reach escape velocity. Lush gospel tones that lifted the earlier album weigh this one down--with elaborate orchestrations and choirs on most songs, the kick of opener "On Fire" too often turns to kitsch. "Gravity just keeps on keeping me down," Pierce sings in "Out of Sight." It didn't used to.