Placebo Is Still Trying to Run Up That Hill
“Back in the 90’s there was this one-hit-wonder. Some song—something about a morning? And there was this guy—or maybe it was a girl—jumping off the roof of a building. What was that? I really liked it.”
So goes the verbal bio of Placebo as reported by the average North American mainstream listener. The video was indeed a memorable one and perhaps the only Placebo video that ever saw so much play on MuchMusic and MTV back when those were still music networks. The song was of course their first North American single “Pure Morning” from their second full-length release in 1998, Without You I’m Nothing. But they weren’t a North American band.
There were other notable North American singles including “Every You, Every Me”—an urgent, buzzing, guitar-strummed anthem which found itself rather appropriately assigned to the soundtrack of the film Cruel Intentions. There was also an even more memorable cover of Kate Bush’s “Running up that Hill” which was evidently targeted entirely at a demographic of TV execs because it found its way onto the soundtrack for just about every television show produced between Wrestlemania and The Vampire Diaries. In addition, it is reported that they’re big in France thanks to Brian Molko’s fluency en français. Those are the minor musical events that shape our common conception of the career of Placebo. Should we dig a little deeper, however, we find a band that has six international full length releases to its name, just as many EPs and compilation appearances. They’ve got a significant number of showings on the European top 20, a reasonably consistent lineup, and they continue to enjoy some measure of commercial success—even if only for the purchasing power of Hollywood television producers and their kids. You can go a long way with Kate Bush alone—just look at Utah Saints.
The B3 EP, like much of their previous work, is well-produced, sounds good loud, and is ultimately an enjoyable listen. Unfortunately it’s also very forgettable and I think therein lies the problem. A quick glance over their catalog reveals repeated attempts at reintroducing Placebo to new audiences. An EP is usually a vehicle to introduce a band or in some cases a new direction. Often it’s simply a matter of not having the studio time or the budget to produce much more. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Nothing about any of these records bespeaks a band that is bad at what they do.
“B3” begins with a rather dated repeating synth bassline. The drums sound loud and pleasingly organic and the guitar is driven hard agaist Brian Molko’s unmistakable vocal style. There’s a lot of contrived drama in that style and I think that’s why it may be hard to take seriously. In order to make an emotional connection to a song it’s necessary to really be passionate at a level to which the listener can relate. He did exactly that on the three aforementioned singles. Here on this track there wasn’t anything that grabbed me. At the height of the hook when he yells “Passion Flower!”—I felt like I wanted him to say something else. He follows that with “Catherine wheel! Higher power, help me heal.” You see that? Not bad. It rhymes and sounds good when that nasally Corgan-esque voice delivers it like it should mean something. I was a fan of the band Catherine Wheel—so there’s that. I am not as much of a fan of medieval torture devices. At this point I paused the record to go listen to “Waydown”.
“I Know You Want to Stop” is a little more of a filler track and it’s true—I did want to stop. Filler is not a great idea on a medium which is so promptly filled. The repeating drum pattern snaps away march-like along side the vocals. Brian is able to drop the drama a few tattooed tear-levels and sing outside the pattern which works really well to loosen things up for a really great hook. It’s again reminiscent of Billy Corgan’s later material and my reaction to it was similar. Something I wanted was missing.
That desire is answered on “The Extra”. Right from the beginning the pokey electronic drums denote a departure from the angst-light angst-rock of the first two tracks. Brian approaches the track with a sincere whine, “I try every day / to think of something to say”. I was already sympathetic. Perhaps its the content of the lyrics here which connect but it almost seemed apologetic and I found myself feeling like he’d just walked backstage after a show, sat with his friends and decided to really perform. He sings, “Show me how to live” and “If I am an extra in the film of my own life, please turn off the camera” and I was completely on board. Thanks for opening up, Placebo. This song was so good I was even willing to overlook the wince-inducing drama in his delivery of, “Silence beacons down the”—dramatic pause—“murder mile!”.
“I.K.W.Y.L.” or, presumably, the 14-year-old spelling of “I Know Where You Live” has the guitar grinding away monotonously amid a fast-moving breakbeat. The song is effective at communicating the mood of the lyrics and rewards the listener with an billowing guitar crescendo in conclusion. The vocals are not as prominent later in the song and the instrumentation—possibly the best thing about Placebo—takes the lead with great results.
In the final track, “Time is Money”, somewhere between the lines “Time is happy ever after” and “Jesus / Jesus / Jesus / take the wheel” my eyes rolled back so far in my head that I could see the inside of my ears and noticed that they were no longer paying attention. Specifically, there’s a word, uttered from what sounds like the control booth of the studio. It could be “well” or “there”—I’m not sure. But it’s spoken, not sung and brought to the forefront in the most bizarre manner that it completely distracts from the otherwise simple piano-driven ballad. It happens again mid-lyric on the word “this” as though one of the band members is punking the lead singer—interrupting his line with a dubbed-in spoken word sample. It’s so oddly positioned and out of context in the mix that I physically looked around to see if someone in the room was speaking to me. Extra creepy considering I was alone.
Placebo has definitely achieved a memorable record here, at least if you can get by the first couple of tracks. Had I heard only the last few, I’d have been quite impressed overall. But it’s still no sinister Kate Bush cover and they may have done themselves a disservice in setting the bar that high. This is no hit-maker but if it denotes a new direction for the band there may be more “Pure Morning"s and “Every You, Every Me"s left in them yet. Either way, they’ll always have Paris.