On Several Attempts to Cover Songs by the Velvet Underground & Lou Reed for Neil Gaiman as His Birthday Approaches, Amanda Palmer pokes fun at the notion of her being invited to sit on a panel of forward thinking musicians in the digital era. “That’s, fucking, everybody,” she says to laughter, but one would be hard-pressed to find an artist more deeply engaged in the act of constantly selling herself online more than Amanda Fucking Palmer. She regularly gives music away online, is an outspoken critic of major labels, is one of the most prolific users of Twitter on the planet, and has raised well over $1.3 million on Kickstarter for a variety of projects. In fact, Several Attempts wouldn’t exist at all without Kickstarter; it was a surprise bonus disc to An Evening With Neil Gaiman & Amanda Palmer which Kickstarter funds paid for.
Further cementing Palmer’s spot in the vanguard of modern musical innovation is the fact that Several Attempts is just the latest in a line of atypical releases—ones which artists in the past used as simple stop-gaps between “real” releases but which Palmer has turned into an artistic and commercial pursuit all its own. The Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under live tour album, sold online for whatever-ya-feel-like-payin’, was a pleasant surprise when it landed last year, and Palmer’s previous collection of Radiohead covers done on ukelele spawned a line of UkeleleHead t-shirts.
Most artists couldn’t get away with this kind of musical dalliance. It is a combination of blistering talent, determination, fan support, and sheer force of personality that has catapulted Palmer to this point of artistic freedom, and personality carries the majority of Several Attempts. Neil Gaiman and Aussie anti-folk badasses The Jane Austen Argument provide the rest of the charm, with the latter’s cheeky backup vocals on “Satellite of Love” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, and the former’s hilarious drollness when played against Palmer’s zaniness.
Sound quality has never been issue on a live AFP release, but Palmer’s duckish fits of laughter and odd mid-song breathing into the microphone distract from the personality brought to the Velvet Underground/Lou Reed covers, which are interesting and mostly successful. Palmer’s take on “Caroline Says II” is beautifully tender, while the whispered deliberateness of “Walk On The Wild Side” hits all the emotional chords of the original and somehow sounds both celebratory and elegiac. Slow piano and melancholy suit the tone of Reed’s songwriting, and the levity of banter between tracks, Palmer making up silly songs on the spot or chatting up the crowd, serves as a kind of palate cleanser.
The conceit, however, runs a little thin by the midway mark. Out of 14 tracks here, the covers are contained to just seven, with one each of a Palmer song (“Blake Says”, which pairs amazingly with “Caroline Says II”) and an original written with Ben Folds, Neil Gaiman, and Damian Kulash of OK GO (“I’ll Be My Mirror”, which does not quite equal the sum of its parts). The remainder of the tracks, as well as the intros to many of the covers, are simply Palmer goofing off as she so endearingly does. Endearing or not, though, this does not make for good repeat listens, which maybe is the point. With her level of ingenuity and the endless support of fans willing to pay to hear her scream into a paper bag, Palmer is free to emerge every few months with a brand new surprising musical bauble to steal our ears for a few hours. Why sweat trying to make any one perfect?