Ten years ago, on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, N.C., was a shack called Tom’s, locally famous for what purported to be natural homemade ice cream, a delicacy that elicited visions of a frosty, scented void. Tom’s banana ice cream, for instance, had little sugar, less flavor, and the merest suggestion of actual banana aroma. Cold, pale, and slightly crunchy, Tom’s Nihilo-Ice tasted like you were eating nothing.

Placebo is an equally cool sensation. Flamboyant, feminine, backed by a supple but chilly Nordic rhythm section, the band’s lead singer and guitarist spins tales of anonymous, mechanistic sex, drug-addled hedonism, and adolescent despair so stylishly detached that they go down without a trace. I’m getting a large cone.

“Who’s the chick?” you ask. That would be Brian. American expat Brian Molko relocated to London, hooked up with Swedish bassist Stefan Olsdal and Swedish drummer Robert Schultzberg and knowingly endeavored to make not a visionary record but one slightly ahead of its time, as he cannily noted to Select, “a forward-looking record, one that says 1997 instead of the usual 1967.”

Placebo appears to time-travel with savoir-faire, but although the disc has planted Molko on the cover of a scoop-hungry Melody Maker, Americans might find it a strange taste to acquire. Because Molko has what, at first blush, has the potential to be one of the most incensing voices in rock—three parts Geddy Lee to one part Feargal Sharkey. And though his trio at times displays the propulsiveness of the Wedding Present, it also toys with the showy chugging of, yes, Rush. Add to the mix vocal lines that recall the Lightning Seeds’ Ian Broudie, a taste for terse power-pop shockers softened by a couple of atmospheric, quasi-Krautrockish instrumentals, Brad (Veruca Salt) Wood production, Smashing Pumpkins–style melodrama, Cure-style nail polish, and…did I mention the didgeridoo?

A band so grab-bag derivative surely is onto something original.

A Spin writer once opined to his girlfriend that Billy Corgan will never be embraced the way Kurt Cobain was, because “his ‘I’s don’t resonate as ‘you’s.” It’s worse than that, she corrected, “his ‘I’s don’t resonate as ‘I’s.” Corgan insists, however, on forcing the point, and this year at least, the public seems willing to be duped.

Molko’s saving grace is that he uses a pronounced lack of resonance—his “I”s never brook the question of being “I”s—as a vehicle to the sublime. Placebo succeeds because all its songs are perfectly weightless, while carrying the frisson of aesthetic overload and moral corruption. “You want the sin without the sinner,” Molko croons on “I Know,” and that’s the appeal of his band in a nutshell—and of this nut in the bandshell. Molko cultivates the persona of the sexually appetitive wastrel as pure theater. “Nancy Boy” invokes the blissed-out license of pan-sexual grab-ass as well as any techno phreekery and sells it better, because Molko paints such fleshy community not as futurist utopia but, more convincingly, as delicious vacuity, which is what I craved when I went to the 9:30 Club on Sept. 25.

Theater, however, requires people on the other side of the proscenium, and such were in short supply that Wednesday night. When I came in at 10:15 p.m., I was patron No. 25 on the main floor. Then a personable fellow named Paul introduced himself as an employee—I was No. 24. Which is really too bad, because the band put on a good show—that an enthusiastic crowd could have transformed into a great one.

Molko emerged as a remarkably fluid power-trio guitarist, deftly incorporating rhythm riffs with brief, melodic solos. He also demonstrated in several songs, such as the Rush-ing “Bruise Pristine,” a wrong-side-of-the-bridge technique that would impress the devil-gone-down-to-Georgia hisself. As performers, the members of Placebo take the goofball homoeroticism of Nirvana and strip away most of the goof. They’ve got the wild-eyed, scrawny, shrimpy guitarist/tall, lanky bassist dichotomy down; then the androgynous Molko reins in the Cobain calisthenics while Olsdal substitutes a statuesque, even columnar elegance for Krist Novoselic’s low-slung, schlumping disarray. And Schultzberg doesn’t pummel, he skitters.

Both the boon and the bane of being without substance is that it makes you more pop—meaning more immediately appealing and more likely to vanish as easily as you appeared. Which is to say that I’m not sure if Placebo—named after a “drug” that, possessing no characteristics of its own, has only the effect you imagine—is really making the album of ’97 or just functioning as the Elastica of ’96.CP

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