Music

Placebo: B3 EP

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.


Placebo

B3 EP

Label: Mercury
US Release Date: 2012-10-16
UK Release Date: 2012-10-15
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“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.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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