Literary Ramblings: The New Bostonians

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The Dresden Dolls are akin to a Bostonian/Vaudevillian inversion of the White Stripes. Rather then an enigmatic leading male who takes on vocals and guitar, the Dresden Dolls are headed by the theatrically charismatic Amanda Palmer who plays the part of lead vocalist and pianist, and is backed up by drummer Brian Viglione. For their early shows, the two would play at Boston area locations, dressed in garb reminiscent of old cabaret shows from the 20’s, playing a style of music they’ve termed “Brechtian punk cabaret”. The group encouraged audience members to participate and in turn the shows also featured stilt walkers and fire eaters and gained the group a following big enough to convince 8 ft. records to sign them on, the result: their self titled debut album. The Dresden Dolls have seen some success since their self-titled debut release; Trent Reznor had them open for Nine Inch Nails on the ‘05 North American tour, Lollapalooza invited them to play in ‘06, and they performed to receptive audiences in Europe the same year, and though their sophomore album Yes, Virginia… outsold their debut LP and was popular enough for the Dresden Dolls to release a companion EP titled No, Virginia…, their debut album remains the bands defining work, setting the stage for their novel sound and offering a collection of songs that grab the listener immediately with their friendly melodies and refreshing presentation.
The album features twelve songs, all written by Palmer (who has since moved onto solo work with her debut album; Who Killed Amanda Palmer), who makes no effort to hide her strong female perspective, which boasts well for the album lyrically. The first track “Good Day” is a break-up song, but does not fit in with the typical clichés that usually define such pieces. The most telling line comes perhaps when Palmer declares that she’d “rather be a bitch than be an ordinary broken heart”. The vocals for the opening track hold true to Palmer’s “Brechtian” declaration, as there is a clear theatrical interpretation to the song. Her voice ranges from whispers to screams, to jumps from sarcastic overtones, to passive-aggressive ones, to vindictive one with telling dialogue, a pattern that carries through to the second track, “Girl Anachronism”, a title that is particularly fitting for a band whose image is catered after a nostalgia inspired by 20’s cabaret. The vocal theatrics are heighten further in this song as Palmer takes on the voice of a narrator who admits to being “let out too soon” and notes that the pills which she “ate came a couple weeks too late”. Palmer makes a twisted interpretation of the lyrics with her vocals, mirroring the dysfunctional content with a voice that sounds as if it is on the verge of a nervous break-down, singing softly through one extreme before racing to scream at the other only to drop back down out of, what sounds like, sheer exhaustion Her theatrics don’t show through only on her vocal, but on her piano playing as well as the slams through the keys in some songs, and changes to methodical plodding in others, constantly changing the tempo to match her character’s mood.
Palmer’s female perspective works to comical effect in “Girl Anachronism”, but perhaps is even more effective in this light with the track “Coin-Operate Boy” where her piano opens the song accompanied by a child-like xylophone. Viglione’s drumming keeps pace with the song’s melodramatic tone (a feat Viglione’s skill maintains throughout the album), and follows Palmers bipolar vocal performance. Lyrically the song is simple but fun in that in inverts the clichéd sexist views and has a female voice asking for a man who is “strong and long lasting” and can fulfill the narrators desires while operating under her every whim. The song even capsizes the typical economic/patriarchal relationship as it is the male figure who receives money from the female, all playing out on top of a catchy melody that makes the listener feel as if they are at the circus.
The album’s theatrics aren’t all melodramatic, and in fact Palmer creates two very challenging and at times uncomfortable pieces that deal with extreme spring/autumn ‘relationships’. On its surface the track “Missed Me” seems to fit in well with the rest of the album as piano follows a dysfunctional voice, fingers lightly falling on the keys at a slow tempo only to raise to break-neck tempo and thunderous plodding (Viglione’s drumming keeping pace with well placed rim-shots, drum rolls, and pounding base drums). The lyrical content though is more than a little disturbing and hard to listen to as the narrator is a young, perhaps adolescent girl whose affections are for an older man who she aims to possess, and when he doesn’t stay with her after being with her physically, as per her fairy-tale fantasy dictates he should, the female character (who would normally be seen as a victim without question) seems all too aware of the authority she yields and notes that she will “make sure [he] suffers” and promises to get her dad to “have his lawyer come up from the city and arrest” him. The song closes with the Palmer’s child-like voice suggesting to the man in question that she “hopes [he’s] happy in the county penitentiary” and offers to visit him, but only if he misses her. Likewise “Slide” has a similar effect. Palmer’s voice and piano remains soft and light for the better part of the song, building slowly along to an eventual crescendo, Palmer relying on low haunting chords which are heighten by an eerie voice that echoes in between verses. Palmer uses the studio to great effect here, layering her voice throughout the track, overlapping her vocals on most every line, starting one line before she finishes the one she’s on, and references to the young girl’s legs being “spread wide” as she comes down the slide, and noting that her “hips [are] getting wider” are uncomfortable enough with out mention of an old man who “wants to take her for a ride”, but with that, and the false promise that “he’ll take her away where it’s safe” followed by Palmer sombre admission that this promise is “of course… a lie”, there is enough in this song to make any listener cringe, but the melodies will not allow the listener to walk away. The lyrics though are not as straight forward as they sound when first heard and are as interesting to read as they are to hear sung, something that is rare in popular music today.
Palmer’s song writing contains some personal reflection as well, as “Half Jack” and “Gravity” both delve into more personal and relatable issues. In “Half Jack” Palmer’s narrative voice grapples with her identity which is comprised of both her mother’s and her father’s influences and how she tries to run away from the deficiencies of her father, but can never escape them and in turn spends her life running from them. Her voice, though still dramatic, drops the almost comical and bipolar tones of some of the albums other songs. “Gravity” likewise deals with issues of aging and other natural (and perhaps unnatural) forces that wear a person down over the years. In the opening verse the song’s narrator claims that at work she is “getting too familiar with the floor, trading in [her] talents by the mouthful”, and noting later in the song that she’d “rather lie than fall”, suggesting that the narrator overwhelmed by the world and would sooner do things the easy way than suffer a ‘fall’. Certainly not an optimistic view but a tragically relatable one nonetheless.
Overall the album is full of interesting commentary, and the presentation, though not unique (it does borrow heavily from cabaret styles, and its theatrical presentation is reminiscent of Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare at times), is still refreshing when placed in the context of contemporary music. Lyrically the album holds up next to anything that has come out of popular music in the last ten years, and the melodies are instantaneously contagious. The songs are often relatable, for male and females audiences alike, and present challenging themes about sexuality and relationships, giving the listener something to think about while also providing some songs that are just fun to listen to. Though their follow up album pursues a similar course lyrically and instrumentally, as does Palmer’s solo debut, it is The Dresden Dolls’ debut album that really catches the refreshing style offered by the duo, which makes it one of the most enjoyable albums in recent memory.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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