Red Pill or Blue?
Metro grungers Placebo, whose seventh full-length release is due out March 2013, thought they might stave their fans’ hunger pangs in the interim with B3, a five-track EP of all-original content—their first new work in over two years. Though the band has received adequate chart success within U.S. shores (the single, “Pure Morning,” reached 19 nationwide), Western Europe has more than taken a shining to their unique cross of ’90s grunge and dark melodicism. But with their latest extended play, though the synths crackle and singer Brian Molko brays like a mascara’d slacker, B3 fails to rise above the mediocre.
It begins well enough in its namesake opener, however—a withering ride of erratic pathos, chunky keys and wailing guitar work. Placebo’s frontman totters from disturbed to hopeful, lashing out in an astringent tone that often approaches “too nasal,” especially in later songs. “I refuse to remain in regret / To pander like a slave to your wants,” Molko growls, aiming his catty jabs at what may be the government, an old flame or his own demons. It’s never revealed. Later baring his plagued soul, he gropes for relief in a strange chorus: “Passion flower / Catherine wheel / Higher power / Help me start to heal.” How fireworks—or flowers?—and Jesus will prove therapeutic I’m unsure, but who am I to judge?
With “I Know You Want to Stop,” Molko’s tinny vocals are chorused over popping drums amidst an embittered romance. After the singer offers some choice post-breakup snipes, the song lunges into a Bush-approved chorus, de-tuned guitar stabs, et al. Somebody ask Gavin Rossdale if his ears are burning. Placebo turns ruminative—or at least poses as ruminative—in “The Extra,” a precious struggle of love versus despair, unfolding over a mid-tempo lope of gentle guitar strums and thudding, ghostly percussion. “If I am an extra in the film of my own life,” intones Molko, “Then who the hell is the director?” Later, he defers to a sugary refrain of “Show me how to love!” twelve times in a row. The singer’s brassy melisma often recalls that of Incubus’ Brandon Boyd, only a notch more sawtooth.
Despite some modest highs, B3’s verifiable low point comes in the downright boobish “I.K.W.Y.L.” Though Molko hints at anti-establishment sentiment through much of the set, here he goes all-out 99%, lobbing oh-so-painful word grenades at every “CEO of the decadent.” His furor justified or not, unintended humor arises from the singer’s nasal provocations, which at times sound more like they’re issuing from a kazoo than human vocal cords. “Hey, you, in your ivory tower,” buzzes Molko, “I know where you live.” The seriousness of his taunts is further degraded when it dawns on you that yes, “I.K.W.Y.L.” is indeed a goofy initialism for “I know where you live.” That’s right. Placebo—those stringy, clean-shaven pixie men—“know where you live.” Be afraid, global elite. Be very afraid.
Kidding aside, the able-bodied backing of bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt presents a reasonably likable grunge–pop synthesis, but the real controversy lay in Placebo’s frontman, whose raw-nerve vocals quiver from crushed, to disillusioned to pious—with nary a ray of humor or self-effacement to break through the tunnel vision. As a result, the songs routinely come off silly, youthful and self-involved. Thus B3’s weighty strains of love, revenge and injustice are ultimately rendered moot—like master class content strained through a high school heart.