Arts: Pop: Fragile life of Brian

PLACEBO READING UNIVERSITY
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The Independent Culture
MOMENTS BEFORE the show, I'm sitting in a bar next to the auditorium having a quiet drink when I am accosted by two quite butch 17-year-olds. "Brian's fit," says one, whipping my press kit from my hands. "Don't you think he's, well, fit? Don't you?" This says much about Placebo's lead singer, the lipsticked and lacquered Brian Molko, and about the band's ambisexual approach.

When, in 1996, the trio rose to semi-stardom they did it with a punkish single, "Nancy Boy", and a self-titled album that, to my ears, wasn't only thin and tinny, but said more than you wanted to know about Brian's dislike of others. In interview he came across as an articulate, arrogant boy (he's 23) who knew he wound people up ("I get punched a lot") but so what?

These days, he wants to be seen as fragile, sensitive and vulnerable and signs of growth are all over the band's sublime new LP where any barbs are directed mostly at himself. The sound is vastly altered - deep, disturbed, exotic - and the improvement lies in part with new drummer Steve Hewitt, whose hard-living Mancunian dance-scene years built a solid, resonant base. Hewitt is heterosexual; Swedish bassist Stefan Olsdal, an ex-teenage pyromaniac is stoically gay. With the American Molko, bisexual, their appeal covers the waterfront.

Tonight, they've made the stage heavily theatrical,with red velvet drapes, glitterball and throbbing chandeliers. Finely chiselled Oldsal, tall as Canary Wharf, plays his baritone Fender with disaffected dexterity; the bonsai-sized Molko, with his centre-parted ebony bob and hollow eyes, self-possessed and barely moving, is utterly charismatic. But his voice has plunged from a ewe-like bleat to studied, feline cool.

By the second number, the Nirvana-esque "Allergic", he's sweating through his A-line dress, looking both sexy and macho: then the album's title track, "Without You I'm Nothing", has him in open-veined mode, bleeding all over the floor; "My Sweet Prince" is a slow grind hymning a lover that is probably heroin; "Nancy Boy" is strobe-lit, vitriolic glitter- pop. "Pure Morning", the current single, is a master stroke, narcotic as "Venus In Furs", built on a sinuous percussive loop. It's Molko's effort to suck up to girls, and even its crass lines - "A friend who bleeds is better" - deliver. By its end, Brian looks like Last Exit to Brooklyn's raddled whore TraLaLa - but, oddly, not at all vulnerable.

Glyn Brown

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