Eyeshadow and Concealer

A talent as genteel as a gift for melody doesn’t seem like something alt-punk songwriters ought to value. So you might not notice how Placebo’s lead androgyne Brian Molko covers up his tin ear by blasting audiences with feedback, frenetically attacking his fretboard, and snarling through his nose in a high voice. His comrades, bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt, back up his camouflage with admirable Gang of Four-ish aggression. And since literal fatigues might be interpreted as right-wing, the three often don gay apparel. On May 28 at Irving Plaza, the too-butch-for-drag Olsdal killed in a floor-length satin dress, while Molko worked some fierce turquoise eyeshadow, a sleeveless white top, and matching flares. (He may have intended this outfit to coincide with Fleet Week.)

Switching guitars faster than cigarettes, Molko & Co. hurried through an hour and a half of material from their two Virgin releases — 1998’s Without You I’m Nothing and the new Black Market Music — in an almost banter-free, businesslike fashion. At their best, Molko’s lyrics sound like indie-film kiss-offs; at worst, they rely on clichés of torturedness that Robert Smith and Billy Corgan hollowed out long ago. But for all the subterfuge that Placebo has erected to deflect attention from their tunelessness, they do intermittently carve out a real song. So quickly did the portentous buzz and recast platitude of “Pure Morning” (“A friend in need’s a friend indeed/A friend with weed is better”) become their signature that they’ve relegated the anthem to second encore status, i.e., they won’t pander to the audience until the last possible opportunity. Yet Molko wasn’t ashamed to feature his atrocious keyboard skills or belt out an ironic chorus of “Jesus Loves You.” Which leads one to believe that Placebo don’t know their strengths, and might never discover the mysterious quality that turns a drone into a hook. — James Hannaham

Mercy Street

Damien Echols was sentenced to death by the state of Arkansas in 1994 for the crime of being a goth kid in West Memphis, but since then his luck has improved. The 1996 doc Paradise Lost and its recent sequel persuasively establish that Echols and his two codefendants were wrongly convicted of the grotesque murders of three boys, and spawned a movement supported by such outcast heroes as Metallica, Steve Earle, Eddie Vedder, and the Supersuckers, who put together last year’s benefit record Free the West Memphis 3. On Sunday, the eighth anniversary of the arrests, fans networking through a crackerjack website held a national day of outreach.

“If this is a grassroots movement, then we’ve just started watering the seeds,” says investment banker Mike Dunn, who learned of the case through the films. Last month Dunn proposed a benefit concert for Echols’s defense fund in the Central Park bandshell, and contacted Luna and alt-country radio sweetheart Laura Cantrell about playing it. Both were interested, but the city wouldn’t approve the permit application (proposed for the same time slot as the Puerto Rican Day parade), so after a hard day of leafleting and spare-changing in parking lots, Dunn and company rendezvoused at the Lakeside Lounge, where they hawked WM3 T-shirts to a crowd already sporting them.

Cantrell opened with a lovely wisp of a solo set, proving she could hold her own without her band of vets. Myke Ripellino of Aunt B’s restaurant, another organizer, brought Beauty, a propulsive “cosmopolitan primitive” combo who almost got the weary warriors to dance. Luna couldn’t make it, so the prime slot went to the trash-folk Muscular Christians, who uncorked some Have Moicy! covers along with yeasty originals goofing on underage drunk driving, sloppy sex, crazy shit Christgau said, the difficulty of finding a decent chicken-fried steak in Houston, and, topically, child abuse. The activists loved it, maybe because of the frisson of dislocation: On Avenue B that kind of attitude is a good time, but on the Tennessee border it can get you killed. — Josh Goldfein

The Little Girls Understand

“Would Blake make a good boyfriend?” This is a question posted on an Internet forum for Jets to Brazil, and it ain’t no guy speculating on the appeal of frontman Blake Schwarzenbach. The site is so congested with female fans that it looks like a 12-step meeting for groupies. So much for emo-core’s status as the rock genre so male that it may as well be funded by the Freemasons.

Left with so few pop options, smart 22-year-old girls are flocking to the thoughtful angst of this former boys’ club. Sure, you’d swear the gawky males crowding any Sunny Day Real Estate show can’t even remember to take off their glasses before bedtime, let alone get laid. But at the Jets to Brazil show at Irving Plaza on May 27, there were nearly as many chicks as guys, and they were up for it. When the band took the stage, the pigtailed, tank-topped creatures chanted, “Blake! We love you Blake!”

So when did the band morph into such charming power popsters? The set was as punchy and melodic as anything dealt out by the Jam or the Buzzcocks, and the sound was more polished than it was a couple of years ago. Back then, when I caught JTB in Texas, the band seemed propelled by scattered, nervous tension. Now every song, from the old (the always excellent “King Medicine”) to the new unreleased stuff (“William Tell Override”), toed the hit-parade line with a sense of entitlement. Blake quasi-humbly stood off to one side for the duration, but he knows he’s transcended the resentful boy-lost he was back when he fronted Jawbreaker. Toward the end, he confided that he felt JTB’s music was hard to categorize, but it came off like a weak escape attempt from the confines of burgeoning rockstardom. We don’t care if you’re rockstarry, Blake. We love you anyway. — Christina Rees

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