Music

Placebo: Once More with Feeling: The Singles 1996-2004

John Bergstrom

Placebo's music is so full of sex and drugs, it's amazing the rock & roll doesn't come across as an afterthought.


Placebo

Once More with Feeling: the Singles 1996-2004

Label: Astralwerks
US Release Date: 2004-11-30
UK Release Date: 2004-10-25
Amazon
iTunes

Placebo's music is so full of sex and drugs, it's amazing the rock & roll doesn't come across as an afterthought. On the contrary, Once More with Feeling proves the androgynous, pan-sexual, pan-European trio to be one of the UK's most consistent singles bands.

With their self-titled 1996 debut, Placebo established the basic template on which they would base their career: lyrics unashamedly bathed in debauchery, set to bold melodies and delivered on top of crunchy, concise, glammy guitars. Listening to the four singles from that album, it's easy to hear why the band became UK critics' darlings. The playing and production (Sonic-Youth-inspired guitars, tight arrangements, sloppy drumming) toe the line between indie and punk with enticing energy, especially on breakthrough European hit "Nancy Boy" with its irresistible descending chorus. Brian Molko's sassy Munchkin-on-ecstasy voice always gets compared to Geddy Lee from Rush, and that's because the comparison is so apt. But there's no mistaking Molko's penchant for singing about heroin, lube, and angles of penetration a la "36 Degrees". The delicately melodic "Teenage Angst" is a relative cold shower, with Molko complaining, "Nothing ever, ever goes my way". If that's the case, then he's surely too sexed up and bombed out to care.

What happened next was one of those rare cases where a band that is expected to be a one-and-done phenomenon surprises everyone by exhibiting exponential growth on their second album. 1998's Without You I'm Nothing was a striking, sophisticated comedown from the debut's anything-goes allnighter, taking musical cues from Depeche Mode and the Cure as well as T-Rex and Nirvana. Where the sex and drugs had been a blessing, now they were a curse, and Molko and company alternately raged against and wallowed in them. Despite their tortured subject matter, the four singles here reveal a newly-focused and professional group that is equally effective at doing mad (the gorgeous New Order-like guitars of "You Don't Care About Us") and sad (claustrophobic mope-fest "Without You I'm Nothing", on which David Bowie's guest appearance actually detracts from the emotional impact of the album version). Steve Hewitt's cracking drumming is a crucial upgrade, especially on slacker anthem "Pure Morning", a song that was recorded as an afterthought during a b-side session and still sounds as fresh and spontaneous.

2000's Black Market Music inevitably suffered by comparison and brought with it the inevitable backlash from UK critics, one of whom made a tongue-in-cheek reference to Molko's "smack rhyming dictionary". Actually, the four singles find the band honing their skills and actually becoming interested in songcraft. If "Taste in Men" is a stab at remaking "Pure Morning" with the rhythm from Chemical Brothers' "Block Rockin' Beats", it's a satisfying, danceable one. "Slave to the Wage" is an uncharacteristic attempt to sympathize with the Working Class, and the melancholy keyboard line and Molko's browbeaten delivery almost pull it off. "Black Eyed" is one of the bleakest UK singles of the post-Smiths era, all thundering drums and crashing crescendos as Molko repeats the phrase "broken home" like it's a mantra. In retrospect, some critics have labeled Black Market Music as Placebo's best album, and it's well-represented here.

On the four singles from 2003's Sleeping with Ghosts, Placebo wisely pump the guitars and tempos back up, delivering a redoubtable set of car stereo-sized tunes. "The Bitter End" is their most immediate, and immediately appealing, single since "Nancy Boy", with a brilliant, punchy new-wave feel. The anthemic chorus and smart dynamics of "This Picture" are as close as Placebo have come to actually sounding like Rush -- in a good way. Molko ponders "the fear of growing old" as he bids "farewell" to "the ashtray girl" with whom he's been playing S&M . . . has he grown up? "Special Needs", a gorgeous combination of swirling guitars, keyboards and pathos, would suggest so.

As Once More . . . is a singles compilation, it comes with the obligatory three "new" tracks. "Protégé Moi" is simply a French-language version of a Sleeping with Ghosts album track, while the whimsical "I Do" is fun but throwaway. "Twenty Years", however, is Placebo's most subtle, understated single to date, suggesting that there may still be fresh directions to explore.

Impressively, considering the band used a different producer on each studio album, One More With Feeling is a sonically cohesive listen, another sign that Placebo are a musical force to reckon with in their own right. All of those studio albums include gems not featured here, but for those who can take only so much rough sex, Once More . . . is a consistently thrilling package.

Ironically, the bottom line with Placebo is neither sex nor drugs. As long as Molko and company keep coming up with new combinations of power chords, it's the rock & roll that will make this band worth coming back for.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image