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Guardian - April 26, 2005

Morbid fascination
Boston's Dresden Dolls are more than a mere gothic novelty.

By Leah Freeman

FROM THE LOOKS of the eerie blue "living statue" offering roses one balmy night outside Cafe du Nord last August, it's clear something unusual awaits the long line of revelers shuffling past in striped stockings and vinyl. Pan downstairs into the venerable basement venue, where the curtains have closed on a sinister puppet show about a megalomaniac tree.

A lovely young lady hops up to patiently lace ribbon, as if she were closing a corset, through two rows of rings pierced alongside the spine of a gentleman in clown makeup. When the curtains are finally drawn, the stage doesn't reveal acrobats or a fetish show, although both seem plausible. Instead, a dapper couple in white pancake makeup appear ˆ he in a bowler hat, she in a baby-doll dress. They seat themselves behind a keyboard and drum kit blooming with dozens of artificial flowers and proceed to hurtle the entire club back in time. On their way back to the venue's speakeasy days, they grab onto the early punk era and drag it along for good measure. The combination's a bit anachronistic. But such is the glory of the Dresden Dolls.

Vocalist and keyboardist Amanda Palmer has been dishing out theater of the absurd alongside drummer Brian Viglione since they met at a Halloween party in 2000. The Boston duo's ferocious act evokes an old-fashioned sensibility, drawing inspiration from two infamous Weimar-era collaborators ˆ composer Kurt Weill and poet, playwright, and lyricist Bertolt Brecht ˆ German natives who lived through the horrors of the world wars and had a bone to pick with bourgeois society. But Viglione and Palmer aren't fronting a carbon-copy revival. "It's something that we're referencing but not trying to re-create," Palmer explains over the phone from Washington, D.C. "It's more of a nod to the spirit of that era."

Some songs on the Dolls' eponymous 2003 debut (8 Foot) follow an old-time Broadway or cabaret style, telling the story of various capricious characters and those they destroy, including, for instance, the malevolent, nursery-rhyming little girl of "Missed Me." Other tracks draw just as easily from harder styles ˆ the emotionally disturbed narrator of "Girl Anachronism," for example, screams of self-mutilation and botched operations over a furious riff that might have come from the Dead Kennedys if they'd only had a keyboard player.

Straitjacket fits
A tad morbid? At times, yes, although if you'll pardon the pun, the Dolls are, for the most part, playful. But couple the recorded moments of straitjacket-tearing with the Dolls' current opening slot on the world tour for Nine Inch Nails ˆ long regarded as the patron deities of a certain ankh-wearing, black-clad subculture ˆ and unfair pigeonholing of the Dolls seems inevitable.

Palmer cringes at the idea. In addition to Nine Inch Nails, the duo has opened for acts as disparate as the B-52s, Beck, and Jane's Addiction and "appeals to a lot of other people. It's not about dressing up and having the most creative costume.... We want it to be inclusive rather than exclusive," she says, reflecting on the diverse and loyal following her music has earned. "It's like a small child leaving the house. You lose control, after a certain point, of who's listening and what they're doing with it. You can keep the message clear but can't control what happens after that." Since leaving things up to chance has won the Dolls a spot at the upcoming Coachella festival and Trent Reznor's invitation from out of the blue to tour with him, you might say it has been a pretty good strategy for success.

We'll show them
Contrasted with the more standard four-piece rock lineups who will play alongside them at Coachella, the Dolls are a bit of an anomaly, bringing an added element of performance art to already inventive music. They do have moments of pure vaudeville: Palmer biting the head off a Beanie Baby bat after a Black Sabbath cover; Viglione dancing over his kit, his silent-film actor's face every bit as expressive as the lyrics, though he doesn't sing a word.

But beneath the sheer spectacle, the Dolls emphasize the literate and introspective. Fan favorite "Coin-Operated Boy" begins as a perky ode to the perfect android boyfriend, complete with a rinky-dink toy piano riff. But as Palmer shifts gears to sing a desperate bridge and the song threatens to fall apart to lyrics about the pain of relationships with flesh-and-blood partners, it's clear that beneath the kitsch, the song is about loneliness. Corset-wearing burlesquers and ordinary folk alike should require no history lessons to understand.

Dresden Dolls open for Nine Inch Nails Wed/27-Thurs/28, 8 p.m., Warfield, 982 Market, S.F. $35.50 (both shows sold out). (415) 775-7722.