Thursday, 31 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #26: Once More With Feeling (2004)

Once More With Feeling is the only entry for alternative rockers Placebo. It is a singles compilation summarising the first eight years of their career.
Placebo were founded in 1994 by Brian Molko (vocals, guitar) and Stefan Olsdal (bass), who had both been educated at the American International School in Luxembourg before meeting up again in South Kensington, London. But while the band soon settled on the name Placebo, they were no so assured with drummers, alternating between two before permanently hiring Steve Hewitt in 1996. The band released its self-titled debut that year and became notorious for its overt sexuality, androgynous image (especially Molko) and drug addiction. While their debut sold well in Britain, critics were less kind about Without You, I'm Nothing (1998), seeing Molko as pretentious. The follow-up, Black Market Music (2000), took nine months to record and consolidated their continental fanbase, hitting the top of the French album charts. Their fourth album, Sleeping With Ghosts (2003), marked a departure, with dancier themes replacing the heavier, American rock sound of old, and returned them to some form of success in Britain.

Like many compilations, we begin at the beginning with '36 Degrees'. Taken from Placebo, it's a good way to introduce us to the sound of the band, and along the way we get the odd lyrical gem, e.g. Allocate your sentiment and stick it in a box from the first verse. Compared to some of the later, darker stuff, this is a bit flat, but at 3:08 it's punchy and (passive-)aggressive enough to pass muster.

'Teenage Boy' has much the same sort of approach. It's very short, it's feisty and it packs a nicely rounded punch. It begins with a simple but effective riff from Molko, who then picks up the ball on the lyrics. Generally they are a little too forgettable to be classic Placebo, but the refrain - Since I was born I started to decay/ Now nothing ever ever goes my way - is very good. It is a very effective piece, with special plaudits for Hewitt's sharp, economical drumming.

On the next two tracks, however, the band start to lose their way. 'Nancy Boy' has none of the imagery or subtlely that the previous two songs had, and as a result it never really comes good. From a lyrical point of view, the subject matter is very clear (Molko's sexual encounters with multiple partners). But soon it falls apart as the band serve up the kind of inane chorus which no average pop song is complete without. This is not what we want, and neither is 'Bruise Pristine'. The riff which kicks things off is empty, the hi-hat a well-worn feature of metal and everything else is plain forgetable. It's not a bad track per se, there is nothing outrageously horrible about it, but neither is there all that much to excite you, making it a big disappointment.

We now move on to the tracks from Without You, I'm Nothing, which is where Placebo start to come good. The lyrics of 'Pure Morning' are among Molko's best: clever, caustic, and brutally honest. From the opening lines - A friend in need's a friend in deed/ A friend with weed is better - you are aware of how much the band have developed and matured in the space of two years. This is musically tighter too, with little room left for showing off on either drums or guitar. The bass is more distinctive, and the whole mood is darker, blacker and resoundingly better.

'You Don't Care About Us' begins with some drumming from Hewitt of which Dave Grohl would have been proud. Oldsal has more room in this track, and the production allows his Gibson Thunderbird to burrow and burn its way deep into your consciousness. This delicate thunder provides an interesting contrast to Molko's yearning, alto-ish vocals, so that the song feels balanced and potent. Good stuff.

With 'Every You, Every Me', things take a turn for the worse. For a start, the sound that Placebo had so carefully built up is completely rent in twain by the acoustic guitar, which plays the kind of empty, inane riff that you would today encounter on a Ting Tings track (think 'Great DJ'). Molko's delivery sounds even more relaxed than usual, to the extent the feeble lyrics become beyond irony and you are quickly driven beyond all realm of patience.

It's a damn good thing, then, that the band follows this up with the title track of their second album. 'Without You, I'm Nothing' features David Bowie on vocals, then in the tail end of his techno phase and fresh from the tour of Earthling (1997). His influence shows; even though he had no part in writing the song, it sounds more professional, more cultured, more all-rounded somehow. His increasingly knarled voice blends superbly with Molko's, again providing a contrast between the high and low registers. And when the songs reaches its climax in the final choruses, it sends a dark shiver down your spine, just the effect Placebo should have on you.

'Taste In Men' is the first track from Black Market Music, and begins with a heady mix of bass and synthesisers underscored with full-sounding drums. The synths are particularly hypnotic, pulsing through your temples like the muffled beats eminating from an underground club. Molko's voice here is more snarly, more embittered, and as a result more exciting; if nothing else, it disguises the repetitive lyrics. Think of it as Massive Attack with an early-teen Johnny Rotten on vocals.

Up to now this is all been a little uneven, but with 'Slave To The Wage' we shift things up a gear or two. This feels so more much professional than the previous tracks. The raw edge displayed in the choppy production may have been dulled, but all the despair and anger remain in full voice, backed by some wonderfully simple guitar work. The drums are thundery, like on an early Rolling Stones record; the bass is loose and jazzy; and Molko is jagged and snarling into the mike like a killer hornet. This isn't exactly the happiest song in the world, but that is not what Placebo are about. They are about creating deep, honest, scarring pieces of music which arouse emotion - and this brilliant track fulfills all these criteria.

'Special K' is one of the more controversial songs included on here. Not controversial because of its selection - it's one of their more successful singles. The controversy lies in its subject matter - namely the use of drugs and in particular ketamine. But of course, Molko is clever in working around the subject, slipping in cultural and religious references along the way - Can the saviour be for real/ Or are you just my seventh seal? Backed by a punk metal rhythm section, he wades through the song so you become sure he is singing about himself.

'Black Eyed' is another good song, simple as. It doesn't have the effortless quality of 'Slave To The Wage' but it's hardly a let-down because of that. The subject matter is well-worn (a boy with a troubled childhood), but that doesn't stop Placebo from trying to find something new about it. And they manage to get away with it, thanks to the lightning-quick snare work of Hewitt. Olsdal's bass work is simpler and more conventional than usual, but to honest you won't care - largely because the only one you're focussing on is Molko.

We now come to the really good stuff, namely the tracks from Sleeping With Ghosts. 'The Bitter End', like all the songs off that album, is about relationships. With a more personal subject matter, the band feels more edgy and aggressive. The songs on here are shorter, punchier and heaps better in quality. The drums are simple and yet clever, as Hewitt combines a simple hi-hat and snare beat with an adrenaline-injected bass drum part. Molko is vocally in full flung form, catapulting you to a dark alley in a dying city. From the very way he sneers at the chorus, you can see the hatred and despair on his face. This is an electric song, a great track from an in-form band.

'This Picture' kicks off with a positively evil bass line, and brings to mind, for some unknown reason, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. This is not as compelling as the previous track, but there is still plenty to like here. It's quite similar to '36 Degrees' in its structure and form, but the addition of synthesisers under the melody help to distinguish it. The lyrics talk about sadomasochism, but unlike a lot of Molko's lyrics it is difficult to pick up on anything for a few listens, save a few references to ashtray girls and growing old.

It is on the next two tracks, however, that the band reach their peak. 'Special Needs' begins with a tender but sinister riff and then it is Molko all the way. He sings like a psychopath, and his lyrics are demented in their feel, serving up a series of gruesome verses, and a simple, drilling chorus:

Just 19, a sucker's dream
I guess I thought you had the flavour
Just 19, and dream obscene
With 6 months off for bad behaviour

The best lyrics are those that instantly put pictures in your head, and here you imagine him stuck in a cell, with only the rain and lightning for company. The band play tightly and rigidly, but there is still a lot of passion in what they do. With 'English Summer Rain', things go the other way. All restraint is gone, all the gloves are off and everything is pumped full of energy to a frightening degree. Once again the lyrics are deceptively simple; they could be almost be called lazy if done by any other band. But with Placebo, they serve as a prism to focus all the darkness into something we can understand. And we get the message, as Molko bears his soul amid the claustrophobic, nightmarish soundscape the other members create. It's an amazing track, so innately simple and yet so full of meaning.

Sadly, the next two tracks fall short of the new bar just installed. 'Prot├Ęge-Moi' is the French version of 'Protect Me From What I Want'. The English version is a good enough song, which leads you to question why they included this instead. Most people will find the French lyrics off-putting, not having the time or energy to decipher them. That is a big error, since the success of Molko's lyrics has always lain on being easy to understand while being all beautiful and metaphorical at the same time. This doesn't do that. 'I Do', meanwhile, has little better in its favour. The opening riff is sub-standard, Molko is singing in self-parody mode, and the whole thing feels stale. It's a good thing that this is the shortest track (at 2:28), because by the time you get to the second verse you'll really be annoyed.

On 'Twenty Years', the closer, Molko's guitar playing has picked up, adding a lilting, blues feel into the abyss and taking things on an interesting journey. This is a definite departure for the band, back-referencing their career thus far while poking fun at the idea of them going on for as long as the title suggests: But all will pass/ We'll end too fast, you know. The production is a lot clearer here than it has been elsewhere on this compilation, and you end up listening to it with a satisfied half-smile, reassured that this band will go on to greater things.

When it comes down to it, Once More With Feeling is not all that distinctive as a compilation. It follows the herd in the way it is laid out in chronological order, it contains only the band's most well-known work, and it includes a new track as a teaser to satisfy fans. So, on the surface, it is too humdrum to deserve a place on the chart. But if you focus on the music itself, its purpose eventually becomes clear. All Placebo's albums, including Sleeping With Ghosts to an extent, are decidely uneven in quality and feel. They are at heart a singles band, and there is a reason why these particular songs were chosen. These songs are indicative of Placebo at each stage of their career, showcasing how they have improved and altered their sound throughout their first eight year. It's not so much a compilation as a narrow history lesson, which leaves you thinking that if there are twenty years to go, they're bound to produce something special along the way.

3.95 out of 5

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