"Placebo Sticks with the Outcasts"

Telegram & Gazette-Worcester, May'01

"We're exploring some darker issues"


by Scott McLennan

Lots of bands vie for the attention of misfits, but Placebo does it without forgetting about the quality of its music.

"Black Market Music" is the latest from Placebo, and it's chock full of the themes that have long been beacons for outcasts: gender bending, emotional ambiguity, drugs, decay, romance, bile, anger, passion, violence, despair and some solace. In short, "Black Market Music" is a freak manifesto, its place in the rock 'n' roll lineage spelled out via a duet with David Bowie and cover of Depeche Mode's "I Feel You." "We like stuff that rocks hard and stuff that is softer. Both extremes have appeal. We wanted to make this album sound timeless with its textures and have some depth," said Placebo's Stefan Olsdal.

The 6-year-old trio from London is touring North America -- with a stop scheduled Saturday at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston -- and Olsdal is well aware that his band's music flies in the face of what's going on musically in this country.

"We're not playing sports metal," he said, dismissing the misogyny and homophobia he hears coming from the "Adidas rock" set whose chief role model he pegged as Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst.

Despite the promise of alternative rock to open minds and break down prejudices, Olsdal maintained that things in the music community are as conservative as ever.

"There's a lot of repression out there," he said. "There are gay rappers, for example, but nobody knows about them, because it's dangerous for them to come out. People are still shocked seeing a guy wearing a dress. Lots of prejudices still exist."

Placebo's music steps onto several societal battlefields, but generally raises the level of discourse compared to other provocateurs.

"We're exploring some darker issues. But it's in the nature of who we are. We're not hiding behind cliches," Olsdal said.

And that's what moves Placebo to a level beyond its influences from an earlier era -- performers such as Bowie and Iggy Pop who created performance characters for themselves. Placebo's Olsdal, who plays bass, guitars and keyboards, Brian Molko, the group's singer, and Steve Hewitt, its drummer, don't come off stage any differently than the way they went on.

Earlier in its career that was something of a problem as outrageous behavior garnered as much -- sometimes more -- attention than the group's music.

A seemingly toned-down Placebo is emerging on "Black Market Music" as the subversions in the music are coming through with more subtlety contrasted to the band's last effort, 1998's "Without You I'm Nothing," a woozy "get high 'n' die" affair.

Where the previous record went into glam-rock overdrive, "Black Market Music" taps more of a punk spirit by keeping songs taught and wiry. Within that model, the band does some pretty interesting things.


For instance you hear it reflecting some of its '80s musical influences, with Olsdal admitting he's tired of hearing how Placebo evokes Rush on this outing (sorry dude, but it's in the mix).

There's also the ear-catching trick of putting delicate lyrics to brutal music one moment, then wrapping dreamy melodies around acidic words the next. The disc begins with the bombast of "Taste in Men" and ends (before the start of bonus tracks) with the soft noodling of "Peeping Tom," a song that reminds Olsdal of an Elton John ballad. The trio even takes on the "Adidas rockers" it so abhors by including a rap-sung chorus to the song "Spite & Malice."

As for those bonus tracks, you get Placebo teaming with Bowie for a refreshed reading of "Without You I'm Nothing" ("He said if we wouldn't sing it with him he'd cover it himself on his next record," Olsdal said) plus the cover of Depeche Mode's "I Feel You" and an unlisted sparse-sounding number that talks about "black market blood."

Placebo's left-of-center sound is a result of its unlikely origins. Molko is American but lived around the world as his parents' jobs dictated. He and Olsdal, a native Swede, met at school in Luxembourg. Their respective families moved on and by coincidence Molko and Olsdal met in London several years later. At the time Molko was working in a band with Hewitt, an Englishman, on drums.

The trio got together in 1995 with the idea to bypass the Beatles- Kinks-Stones obsessions fueling young British bands at the time and instead work on ways to fuse the sensibilities of Nine Inch Nails and PJ Harvey without sounding like either of those two acts.

Placebo made a couple of independent records before signing with Hut Recordings and releasing a self-titled full-length CD.

Bowie took a shine to the band and had it open for his 1996 tour of Europe and later asked Placebo to join him at his 50th birthday concert staged at Madison Square Garden in 1997.

The band went on to tour with U2 and was cast in the film "Velvet Goldmine" about the glam rock scene of the '70s released in 1998.

Placebo has yet to build an audience in the U.S. as large as the one it has in the U.K., but Olsdal sees the band's appeal here growing.

"We have a demographic that runs from the 50-year-old mum that was at our show the other night celebrating her birthday to the first couple rows that are always full of teen-agers," Olsdal said.

That sort of spread suggests people really can get hooked on a Placebo.