London’s Placebo, recently reduced to a duo due to the departure of drummer Steve Hewitt late last year, have spent the past 14 years garnering equal helpings of praise and scorn over five albums, amassing a huge European audience while remaining cult figures in the U.S. Lead singer Brian Molko, he of the androgynous stance and sexually ambiguous lyrics, is a particularly polarizing reason. While you may warm to it over time, his singing provokes an instantaneous, visceral reaction Á¢€” you either like his Geddy Lee-like voice or you don’t. So why should you like Placebo? The evidence, please:
Placebo, the grunge rockers: While they may have started out as Nirvana-influenced Britgrunge, songs like “Nancy Boy” (download) betrayed an underlying love for ’70s glam and David Bowie in particular. But Placebo’s early work had plenty of loud/soft dynamic and guitar muscle, not to mention hooks, to attract a more mainstream alternative (oxymoron alert!) audience. It was only the first of many musical masks the band would don.
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Placebo, the Britpop band: The band’s second album, Without You I’m Nothing, saw the band achieve its greatest success, with “Pure Morning” and “Every Me, Every You” making the MTV playlist. American radio was slow to respond, however, probably because the band was lumped in with the then-current wave of Britpop assailing our shores. Since Placebo didn’t have the ready, working-class accessibility of an Oasis or Blur, audiences in the States sat back and stared at the weird girly-man singing about, ironically enough, the working class on stellar should’ve-been hits like “Slave to the Wage” (download). But while Placebo are always ready with a catchy rocker, the band is also adept at crafting melancholy morning-after ballads like “Follow the Cops Back Home” (download).
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Placebo, the electronica trio: As the band matured, they’ve expanded their sound to include more electronic and synthesized elements, even incorporating dance beats into songs like “English Summer Rain” (download). It’s a testament to the group’s songwriting skills that the dance appropriations have never been forced or embarrassing, just more of a natural extension of their growth. While the Sleeping With Ghosts album was heavily weighted towards the synths, the band’s last album, Meds, saw a nicer balance between the guitar rock of old and the electronica influx.
Placebo, the pub cover band: Placebo are well known for their love of cover songs, stuffing many a CD single with them. You’re probably familiar with their versions of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” (featured in some car commercial) or Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” (featured in some teen soap opera), but my fave is their take on Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary” (download), turning the original sequencer-laden song into a straight-ahead rocker.
Their crowning moment: No doubt, it has to be what must have been a dream duet, the single version of “Without You I’m Nothing” (download), featuring David Bowie on guest vocals. Equal parts despair and celebration, it’s a statement that can be taken two ways Á¢€” is the protagonist happy or sad that without “you” they’re nothing?
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For fans of: David Bowie, Rush, Jane’s Addiction, T. Rex
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