Theatrical, crazy, sad, disturbing, hilarious, veering from the melodramatic
to the profanely exhilarating, the Dresden Dolls invite a music writer
to come up with a whole host of adjectives in an attempt to capture not
just their sound, but their entire act. The words above are easy enough
to conjure up, yet do not quite do justice to how unique the duo is,
how the two make innovation seem so effortless.
The Dresden Dolls are made up of Boston-based Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione, intriguingly pictured on the front cover of their eponymous album posing cheek to cheek in a tango-like embrace. Palmer, the vocalist, pianist and songwriter, is clad in a short black dress and striped black-and-white stockings. Viglione, the drummer, wears a bowler hat, suit and tie (though his shirt and tie are eventually jettisoned during live shows). Both have faces that are heavily covered in stage makeup, the kind that perhaps mimes would wear.
Together they are a quirky, firebrand twosome, producing what the band itself describes as "Brechtian punk cabaret." Their image is crucial to their act, but not in a calculated Oops...I Did It Again-era Britney Spears sort of way, with the singer wearing a sweet, aw-shucks smile and dangerously low hip-hugger jeans to project innocent sexiness.
The arty black-and-white photographs of doll heads in teacups and Palmer and
Viglione profiled in severe eyeliner and whiteface are not image compensating
for a lack of substance, but set the mood for the kind of music in store for
listener. The songs sometimes playful and whimsical, others more haunting
and disturbing feature Palmer's cracked Dolls persona having a preadolescent
obsession with a skuzzy Humbert Humbert type, referring to herself as "the world's
worst accident," and wanting a plastic, coin-operated boy because he's easier
to deal with than the real thing. The Dolls produce the type of songs that don't
easily fit any one genre and are the better for it: they definitely rock, yet
have gorgeous melodies that stick in your head for days; they're heartfelt, but
also don't ask to be taken too seriously.
Standout tracks include the opening "Good Day," in which Palmer's whispery vocals explode into a cathartic happy-angry yelp to an ex about how "things are going [her] way" since their breakup. "Coin-Operated Boy" is instant pleasure, a tinkling ditty that is both catchy and undeniable, as is the "Jeep Song," a poppy, rollicking tune chronicling someone's Jeep phobia after she thinks she sees her ex-boyfriend's Jeep (understandable, because as a Beantown resident I can attest to the fact that "All of Boston drives/ The same black fucking truck").
"Girl Anachronism" spills out the lyrics in a manic, rapid-fire pace to echo the character's anger and instability, a raucous rock song that when performed live reveals the amazing chemistry Palmer and Viglione share, incredibly in tune with each other as they thrash about on their respective instruments. At times, Palmer comes close to sounding like a punky, histrionic Tori Amos, and on "Missed Me," she's in danger of becoming slightly unbearable with the song's prolonged, misery-crazed repetition of the chorus. In the same vein, "Half-Jack" isn't a favorite of mine on the album, but performed live it transformed my experience of the song. Whereas on the album, the repetition of the chorus was starting to seem a bit tedious, when I heard it performed live I could appreciate the way the chorus snakes and builds to a startling musical climax, ending with the shiver-inducing scream of "See Jack run."
The album contains a lot of dark, edgy tunes, all of which are high quality, but hearing the off-kilter "Mandy Goes to Medical School" and fan favorite "Coin-Operated Boy" performed live makes me wish they had balanced the album with more quirky, lighter fare. But that is a minor quibble, because after hearing this album I know the Dresden Dolls have a long musical career ahead of them, allotting them plenty of time to create all sorts of songs of crazy beauty, chaotic whimsy and wonder.