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The Dresden Dolls Studio Debut


by Brian Block

I’ve never met Dresden Dolls’ pianist-singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, so I can’t tell you what kind of person she is. She writes vivid first-person songs, so I can’t prove you wrong if you choose to hear the Dresden Dolls as a monomaniacal series of diary entries: the intimate day-by-day thoughts of a hermaphroditic hooker who cuts herself, keeps an automated boyfriend on her shelf, and has a deep ongoing obsession with her most recent ex. But that would be dull, so I’d ignore you.

It’s not, mind you, that hermaphroditic hookers who cut themselves, keep automated boyfriends, and obsess over their exes have any less right to self-expression than anyone else on white-person radio. It’s that diary is such a limited art form, turning a six-billion-person planet into a hazy and poorly-lit backdrop for the eternal question “But what about ME?”. Instead, every non-musical element of the Dresden Dolls indicates that it is a work of imagination and theater – starting with the duo’s name and the front cover, where drummer Brian Viglione does everything in his power to look like Joel Grey in Cabaret.

Not that Cabaret was exactly an endorsement of the 1930’s German night scene and its celebration of decadence: for one thing, it’s the most subtly terrifying treatment of the Nazi rise to power that I’ve seen in film. But much of what made its cabaret chilling was the ease with which it built itself on jolly stereotypes, and could make those stereotypes cruel if it seemed convenient to do so.

Whereas Amanda inhabits her narrators with depth and intensity: she builds a small universe of people, and for a song she sings _as if_ they were her, with the self-analytical detail of Alanis Morissette and with Ani DiFranco’s magical ability to make thoughts flow out of her mouth in rhyme. The Nazis played funny games of abusing the odd people, and then brought the sport out into the world; Amanda Palmer sings along with the losers, more intently than most of them would sing for themselves, and provides a typed lyric sheet so you can do the same.

It’s the breakup songs that will get them on radio if anything will. The upside of navel-gazing is that, beyond the innie-outie distinction, most navels look a lot alike: in mapping the contours of your narrator’s wounded pride and rage, you can satisfy a million listeners that it was theirs you were looking at. “Good Day” starts the album in musically simple mode: Palmer’s piano rumbles slowly in minor keys, Viglione uses his drum-set sparely, and we mostly hear the part of Palmer’s vocal range that is rounded, contralto, and seems near tears, like Polly Jean Harvey singing the role of a 250-pound carnival barker who just had a fight with his wife. Late in the song she shows off Rachmaninoff-ish chops, and guest Ad Frank contributes the album’s lone guitar solo, but we’re here for the sentiments. It's the “I Will Survive” genre, where the singer proclaims that no, really, I’m having just a lovely time in your absence and you didn’t hurt me and I really don’t even think about you anymore you unforgivably vicious heart-thieving bastard you. What's special is Palmer’s writing ability: how many people who do keep diaries would love to adopt quatrains like “Go ahead and talk about your bad day/ I want all the details of your pain and misery/ that you are inflicting on the others/ I consider them my sisters and I want their numbers”? Or the simpler “But I’d love to have you up to see the place/ I’d like to do more than survive, I’d like to rub it in your face”?

People drawn in by “Good Day” would have a couple more breakup songs to keep them happy, gentler ones for less mean moods. “Jeep Song” is light and syncopated with odd vocal harmonies (all voices by Palmer) and neat pounding snares: Ben Folds could imitate it without straining. It’s about being nostalgic at the sight of the ex’s auto: “I guess it’s just my stupid luck/ that all of Boston drives that same black f---ing truck”. “Truce” is long and hushed, its drama built through roiling cymbals, a well-arranged string quartet, and an increasingly tribal pound. Its conciliations are born frozen: as fanciful as “You can have Washington, I’ll take New Jersey/ you can have London but I’ll take New York City”, as relevant as “You get Rte. 2 between Concord and Lexington/ I want Mass Ave. from the Square to my apartment”, as harsh as “On special occasions we’ll split between parents/ who forced us to hate them on alternate weekends”.

Sure, it’s the last song, and followed by a brief crackle of vinyl (or wax cylinder?) as an old lady chides “Amanda! You're telling us a fairy tale”. But like the giggly 23 seconds of a capella that my disc times from the negative-24-second mark of track two, that interlude waits its turn, and doesn’t disrupt the howls of “I hit back when hit, and attack when attacked”.

As long as I’m pretending to market the Dresden Dolls, I’ll suggest “Girl Anachronism” as a follow-up single: its appeal won’t be as universal as “Good Day”s, but it deserves to be an outsider anthem. After a few relaxing Debussy-ish arpeggios, Palmer shrieks “1, 2, 3, 4!” over cymbal, and begins to pound her piano hard. The vocals are frantic, fast, and articulate enough to amaze the finest of rappers, even as they carry a melody the late cabaret composer Bertold Brecht would be proud of. Spitting out the emphasis on every third word, she spins future AOL profile quotes from the start: “You can tell by the scars on my arms, and the cracks in my hips, and the dents to my ear, and the blisters on my lips, that I’m not the carefullest of girls”. It takes on a more theatrical lilt for “If I were any colder I would disengage/ if I were any older I would act my age/ but I don’t think that you’d believe me/ it’s not the way I’m meant to be/ it’s just the way the operation made me”.

I don’t know how many would copy her when she’s singing “I am not so serious/ this passion is a plagiarism” to almost the tune of “I am the very model of a modern major general”. But very soon the yelps and venom return, and the only real question is on whom the narrator is focusing her hate: “You can tell from the full-body cast/ that you’re sorry that you asked/ though you did everything you could/ like any decent person would” is harsh as absolutions go.

But these isolated quotes don’t do justice. What’s awesome is the speed with which she barrels down her labyrinth of blame and self-dissection, pausing not a second if she retraces her path once or twice. Like a shark, her narrator must stay in motion or die. Lots of us boys will date a shark, if she’s spirited and pretty enough; lots of girls would rather be dangerous than endangered by others.

“Missed Me”, speaking of which, winds its logic as carefully, to a slow oompah beat, as “Girl Anachronism” does recklessly. It’s a perverse but undeniable take on the Spice Girls’ version of Girl Power, which never selected clothes for warmth or comfort: “Missed Me”’s girl narrator maneuvers an adult male into a sexual relationship with childlike syllogism. “Missed me, missed me, now you gotta kiss me/ if you kiss me, mister, you must think I’m pretty/ if you think so, mister, you must want to f---- me/ if you f--- me, mister, that must mean you love me/ if you love me, mister, you would never leave me/ it’s as simple as can be”. This Girl knows her Power; “why do you keep leaving?” isn’t even asked until she’s already pointed out “I might tell my sister/ if I tell her, mister, she might tell my mother/ and my mother, mister, she might tell my father/ he won’t be too happy, and he’ll have to call his lawyer”. And yet even power games have their tragedies, when they spin from emotions, and she’ll visit him in the penitentiary if he misses her. How can she be the carefullest of girls when the care she wants is illegal?

So it goes, as Amanda Palmer leaves no emotional implications untouched. The hermaphrodite’s song is nakedly miserable, just above a whisper, and focuses on identity and fear instead of the gory biology. The self-blaming “Perfect Fit” offers sensible theories of how school success was a setup for life failure. “Bad Habit”’s narrator, over cinematic piano like Tori Amos turning “Precious Things” into the Muppet Movie finale, has a dozen rationalizations for cutting herself, and as many reasons why she’s superior to a world where “No one cares if your back is bleeding/ they’re concerned with their hair receding”.

“Coin-Operated Boy”’s ad for “love without complications galore” has bouncy syncopation, music box, and snare taps like a plastic drummer in an Energizer commercial. Until, that is, it flows into a plea for real love raw enough to scare Melissa Etheridge: I can easily imagine that the song’s first draft didn’t have “This bridge was written to make you feel smittener”, but by the time she’s done following that impulse in her richest, deepest, saddest voice, only a true scoundrel would turn the narrator down. (But there’s plenty of those, so she creates a rather amazing transition back to that bouncy coin-operated boy ad, over which Brian’s percussion sounds like an angry trash-compactor tearing up its room.)

Palmer designed the album booklet herself, a richly imaginative collage of paintings and photographs and note-paper and century-old ads, with recurring images of pre-modern children and heavily made-up Amanda and Brian. It doesn’t look like the work of a mental case. It looks like the work of a creative overachiever who thinks it’s cute to photograph the decapitated head of a dowdy plastic doll, floating in a tea cup on an expensive table. Oddly, she's right.

Of course, I’m also hoping the very-cute kiss photos of the duo are more real than staged, so we can see my bias. The Dresden Dolls is the finest debut album I’ve heard since Tori Amos and Rise Robots Rise eleven years ago. It’s my favorite Boston-area album since Count Zero’s Robots Anonymous, and granting that came out only two years ago, I proclaimed it “the best album of our young century”. The Dresden Dolls might be the first cd from anywhere to make me reconsider.

I can’t believe _everything_ here is an act – “Slide” is the creepiest poem about aging I can even imagine, and once she's expressed the same fears differently in “Gravity”, I really do figure Amanda will spend her 30th birthday locked in a tiny metal box, breathing through a vent and sobbing. But I want her to be basically sane. She deserves to be as happy as she is brilliant; she deserves that all her traumas be a healthy creative release.

I bet that my hopes for her are, on balance, fulfilled. If you doubt me, great: order the album from Amazon, enjoy it, and we’ll discuss.