Sleeping With Ghosts

Even though the European success of Placebo's first three albums hasn't translated into more than cult stardom in the U.S., the London glam-rock trio doesn't change much for its fourth full-length, Sleeping With Ghosts. The new disc continues to alternate frenzied guitar charges with spacey ballads and danceable pop, all derived from the angst and adventurousness of The Smashing Pumpkins, Rush, and David Bowie. The proggier elements of Placebo's sound have diminished over time, but the arena-filling ambition and the decadent posturing of high-voiced, warbling singer-guitarist Brian Molko remain. Molko and his bandmates are a gleaming ennui machine, converting romantic misery and punk aggression into polished, pretty expressions of melancholy. They also have the U.K. rocker gift for perfect singles, in this case "The Bitter End," a vague breakup prognosis set to the locomotive rumble of bass and drums and an increasingly ethereal set of propulsive guitar stings. Placebo matches that high point with a handful of others, including the upbeat loser anthem "This Picture," the pluck-and-fuzz guitar duet (and groupie kiss-off) "Special Needs," and the this-world-sucks-but-you're-beautiful dream-pop of the title track. Placebo may never reach an American audience past its established fans, but those fans ought to gravitate to Sleeping With Ghosts' uncluttered, moody niche. Scottish one-man band Mull Historical Society seemed similarly headed for the margins after its debut disc Loss, which puffed out orchestral folk-pop until all but the catchiest tunes floated into near-nothingness. The record had its charms, but it wouldn't have been surprising if singer, songwriter, and guitarist Colin MacIntyre and his scattered backing players had decided to make Loss a one-off. Instead, MacIntyre comes back strong on Us, Mull Historical Society's second album. The collective still relies too much on rickety amusement-park instrumentation to make sketchy, familiar-sounding music-hall melodies sound grander. But Us' 14 tracks contain a larger proportion of memorable songs, enlivened by MacIntyre's elaborate visions of middle-class neurosis. The protagonist of the chiming "Oh Mother" may be deeply disturbed (a reading encouraged by the title of the song that follows, "Asylum"), or he could just be dealing with the anxieties of daily living, just like the put-upon bureaucrat in the palpitating, hooky "Minister For Genetics & Insurance M.P." and the desperate shoppers in the jaunty consumer nightmare "The Supermarket Strikes Back." It's not unusual for wry pop mavens like MacIntyre to marry happy music to bitter words, but Mull Historical Society shows increasing skill and confidence on Us, alongside an ability to make the fantastical, metaphorical images of exploding human duplicates in a song like "Clones" sound at once cute and blood-curdling. If MacIntyre stays on this path, by the time he achieves true greatness, rockophiles the world over might be paying attention.

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