POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Stirring Emotional Mix From Garbage at the Roxy

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Garbage.

That's a great name for a rock band because it's so wonderfully irreverent.

But it's especially good for the group that has actually adopted the name because many of the outfit's most enticing songs are about characters so outwardly despairing and desperate that they seem to be living on the garbage heap of life.

Or are the songs really meant to be as dark and desperate as they first sound?

The strange--and alluring--thing about Garbage's formal Los Angeles debut on Wednesday at the Roxy was that the band included so many conflicting elements in its hourlong set that you were free to find whatever emotional tone best served your mood.

On the group's self-titled album on Almo Sounds Records, Shirley Manson sings at times about soured relationships with an anger and vengeance that make her seem a soul sister of Alanis Morissette.

"You burned me out, but I'm back at your door / Like Joan of Arc coming back for more," Manson snarls in "Vow," one of the album's most powerful numbers. "I came around to . . . break your soul apart."

While on the album there is enough melodic brightness to keep the songs from sounding as relentlessly downbeat as some of today's more severe pop depressants, the tone is still far from rosy.

On stage, however, the music assumed added color and even traces of celebration--as if the chief point of the songs is to acknowledge the strength that comes from overcoming hardships or, in places, to mock our tendency to feel sorry for ourselves and wallow in sadness.

There's no escaping the sense of hurt in such tunes as "Not My Idea" and "Vow," and Manson sometimes sang with the howl of an injured party, but she frequently lifted your spirits by bouncing around the stage with the exhilaration of someone toasting good fortune.

She was so animated during the overtly downbeat "Only Happy When It Rains" that she must have been imagining a downpour outside.

But Garbage isn't just Scotswoman Manson. The band, which includes ace record producer Butch Vig on drums, exudes the command that comes from a strong partnership. The songs are expertly designed and played with a balance of pop-rock sophistication and accessibility.

After Vig worked in the studio with Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, you'd think he'd have trouble putting together a group that would keep him challenged. But he has one in Garbage.

Wednesday's show was opened by Acetone, a promising Los Angeles band whose sweet, somnambulistic sound employs both disarming country edges and harsher, Sonic Youth-ish guitar explorations.

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