by Rick Rockwell
Alright, any album that starts with a song entitled “Kitty Litter” immediately has this critic’s attention.
Thus opens Placebo’s sixth album Battle for the Sun: a 13-track outing that veers from grungy, post-punk stylings to experimental indie rock. (The electronic bonus track version comes with an additional track, “In a Funk.” The limited edition box set also includes yet another bonus studio track, “Wouldn’t It Be Good.”)
Battle for the Sun plays like a raw open wound of emotions after a particularly bad romantic breakup. Brian Molko’s lead guitar jangles and screeches with anxiety. The lyrics vary from anger (“The Devil in the Details”) to spiteful revenge and finally to the painful aches of emotional recovery (the updated glam-rock on “For What It’s Worth,” the first single).
Musically, Placebo has sharpened its sound on this release. While Meds (2006) seemed like an audition for the spot as band most likely to succeed Radiohead as the kings of alternative rock, most of Battle for the Sun is straightforward rock. Although the band includes a song “Ashtray Heart” which is a salute of sorts to Captain Beefheart, most of Battle for the Sun seems focused on crafting well-honed songs and less on pushing the alternative musical boundaries. (In the 1990s, before its first record, Placebo actually played some concert dates using the band name Ashtray Heart.)
Perhaps this musical focus is meant as the band’s assault on the U.S. market. A well-known success in Europe and the U.K., Placebo is far from a name act on this side of the Atlantic. Placebo certainly has as much to offer or more than popular U.S. favorites such as Fall Out Boy or The Killers. For instance, the track “Julien” certainly has radio potential with its well-crafted use of strings and a strong hook. Molko’s guitar work on the track is also reminiscent of the best of Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins. But likely, U.S. radio programmers will again pass on this material: it is over their heads.
Tracks like “Kings of Medicine” strike home not only with brass arrangements but also interesting lyrical wordplay using alcoholic beverages as the key metaphors. This is a trademark for Placebo, which has often used drug and alcohol references (including the band’s name choice) to make larger statements. Although Battle for the Sun may actually be a battle for notice in the U.S., it is another strong release from Britain’s answer to Seattle and the grunge movement of the 1990s. And for those who may think Placebo’s time has passed, just sample one track: “The Never-Ending Why.” On that number Molkos’ buzzsaw guitar provides a counterpoint to the sonic barrage of layered backing vocals, synthesizers, and even a toy piano (which has become a bit of a signature for this era’s indie rockers).
The recommendation: cue this one up; it is so much more satisfying than any of that wimpy pop or emo that tends to dominate the airwaves these days.
(The promotional photo of Placebo is © copyright Joseph Lianes and is made available for use through Vagrant Records, Placebo's U.S. record distributor. Placebo will begin its world tour on June 12 with an appearance in Finland. To see the video for the single "For What It's Worth," please check below.)
Battle for the Sun
For What It’s Worth
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by Rick Rockwell