Rock & Pop: They aim to placate

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The Independent Culture

Folkestone Leas Cliff Hall

When went on tour last year, Brian Molko, their front man, claimed that they left "a trail of blood and spunk across Britain". With a slash of scarlet lipstick and a jet-black bob, Molko exploited the sexual-ambiguity card for all it was worth, and the music press duly lapped it up. But at Folkestone's Leas Cliff Hall on Thursday, there was no evidence of said excretions. Pop's current ladyboy wasn't even wearing a dress.

David Bowie introduced androgny to rock a generation ago. Nearly 30 years later, it's starting to look a little worn. Two songs in, and Molko makes a needless plea to his audience: "Do not be afraid, we are only ." Molko might wear the make-up, but compared to his US antichrist cousin Marilyn Manson, he's a puppy.

This is the first date on a gruelling tour of the UK which marks the release of 's second album, Without You I'm Nothing. It's not out until tomorrow, so more than half the songs play tonight have never been heard before. The Leas Cliff Hall normally reserves top billing for the likes of Cannon and Ball and Freddie Starr. So the pimpish Molko stands slightly at odds against the dusty chandeliers and stinking hot- dog stand.

Molko, an American Scot, grew up in Belgium, Liberia and Lebanon. At the age of 10, he was shipped off to a tiny American private school in Luxembourg, where he met a lanky Swedish boy called Stefan Olsdal. When the boys were only 12, a primitive would rehearse in the school hall. Together with Northwich-born drummer Steve Hewitt, they form an unlikely trio, a garish rainbow of culture and sexual preference. Olsdal, the bass-player and co-writer, is an overtly camp homosexual. Hewitt is defiantly heterosexual, fresh out of Manchester's dance scene. And Molko is a brash, whorish bisexual.

Their first album, , employed noise tactics somewhere between Jane's Addiction, Sonic Youth and Joy Division. It offered an antidote to the laddishness of Britpop, and filled a gap for the indie kids in make-up who never quite got over the loss of Richey Manic. Bowie asked them to open his 50th birthday party in New York, they toured with U2 and went from playing venues of 300 to 12,000 virtually overnight. And their status as Nineties glam darlings was confirmed when Todd Haynes called them up and asked them to appear in Velvet Goldmine.

are tight and obviously accomplished. But they remain fairly lacklustre: Molko's stiff posturing and Olsdal's bizarre groin- gyrating at the front of the stage isn't quite enough. The songs on Without You I'm Nothing are less frenzied, more melancholic and reflective, than those on their gold-selling debut; Molko calls it the sound of "a post- coital comedown". Plus, they've even started doing ballads. The jagged guitars and catchy chorus of "Nancy Boy" still drives the mosh-pit into overtime. But during some of the slower numbers - "Without You I'm Nothing", "Scared of Girls" and "The Crawl" - the pace is lost. The name "" comes from the Latin, meaning "I will please". Which they did, but little more.

'Without You I'm Nothing' (Hut) is out tomorrow.