In 1995, Garbage released their self-titled debut album and immediately received acclaim for their unique, hazy, female-fronted blend of pop, rock and electronica. Of course, while audiences latched onto the proverbial teat of Shirley Manson and company, serious rock fans knew that Garbage’s sound was nothing new–years earlier, the British band Curve presented a similar cacophony of evocative guitar-laced tracks, appropriate for either dancing or wallowing in misery, depending on your preference. This is in no way a slight against Garbage, because every great artist’s inspiration is at least partially born out of imitation, but Curve never seemed to benefit from Garbage’s success–while all five Garbage releases hit the Billboard top 20, no Curve album made a dent in the top 200.
Led by Toni Halliday, every bit as sexy as Manson in both looks and vocal style, Curve initially made their mark with three EPs before releasing 1992’s full-length Doppelganger. (Those early EPs were later assembled on the endearingly titled Pubic Fruit.) A quick look at its cover makes it clear that this is not your average shoegaze record: while the collection of naked Barbies and baby dolls–some decapitated, some merely torsos–may not be as inherently disturbing as the fetus-filled back cover of Nirvana’s In Utero, but it’s at least as nightmare-inducing as your average Courtney Love photograph.
The music, though, is a fiery mix that’s both aggressively beautiful and beautifully aggressive. Opener “Already Yours” packs an immediate punch with its staggered beat and hypnotizing “Ooh la la la” backing vocals. The sharp, heavily produced guitars provide a pretty good indication of what you can expect from Doppelganger, though the track eventually washes away into an array of jarring, grinding sounds (file that in the “aggressive” category). That’s followed up with the ethereal intro to “Horror Head,” the album’s second single. Like a sinister version of the Cocteau Twins, emphasizing style over lyrical clarity, you’ll have a tough time trying to rid your mind of its paralyzing chorus, which consists of nothing more than the word “Hey” being repeated thrice.
Perhaps the highlight of the album is “Wish You Dead,” which really showcases the best elements of the band: pulsating beats, jagged guitars, Halliday’s haunting vocal presence and dark, confrontational lyrics like, “You can filter your poison into my sleep / But I know it’s my heart / That you could never reach.” The sentiment may be harsh, but the world would be a better place if all death threats were this catchy.
But the strength of “Wish You Dead” also represents the album’s main weakness: the production and atmosphere hardly varies from track to track. So many songs boast the same intro (a jittery drum beat emerging into sludgy, whirring guitar riffs) that they eventually begin to blend into one another. That’s a problem, because each cut features something interesting on its own that may get lost in the context of the whole record. To truly appreciate what Doppelganger has to offer, listeners should digest each song individually. The start-to-finish experience is certainly worthwhile, but you’d be hard-pressed to point to any specific track afterward without first hearing it stand by itself.
About the only song immune from this is the slow, introspective “Sandpit,” which closes most editions of the album. (The U.S. version includes an additional track, “Clipped,” taken from one of the EPs.) It may not be as instantly appealing to fans accustomed to a rockier sound, but ending with less intense fare is a trademark of 90s alternative rock (see: Nevermind, Purple, Siamese Dream), and its comparatively hopeful lyrics (“I’m just trying to do the right thing”) are a welcome change of pace.
For modern listeners, it’s inescapable: lyrically, musically and sonically, Doppelganger is so uncannily similar to Garbage’s work (particularly their earlier material) that it will pack few, if any, surprises. But that doesn’t make it any less relevant 20 years on, and their later efforts–some of which we’ll undoubtedly explore at GrungeReport.net in the future–are just as valid. Whether Curve was ahead of its time or just never meant to be appreciated on a wider scale, one thing is for sure: though Garbage may have adopted (and, arguably, bettered) its sound, there’s no substitute for the original Doppelganger.