Although part of what makes Boston “cabaret punk” duo the Dresden Dolls so appealing is the chemistry between pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione, the main draw has always been Palmer’s songwriting. Part pretentious art school eccentric, part confessional singer-songwriter, part clever pop composer, Palmer knows full well that it doesn’t hurt for pop music to be full of itself from time to time, and judging by the very loyal following the duo has built over the last few years, the message appears to be getting across in a big way. When Palmer strikes that balance between ostentatiousness, wry poetry, and genuine hooks, as on past gems like “The Jeep Song”, “Coin Operated Boy”, and “Shores of California”, it’s easy to understand why the Dolls’ fanbase has grown at the rate it has. Why not be flamboyant and have fun with it?
This year, the question fans had was just how much of a departure Palmer’s much-ballyhooed collaboration with Ben Folds would be from the usual Dresden Dolls oeuvre, but upon hearing the opening notes of her solo debut, the answer is, likely to the relief of many, not very much at all. Just as Emily Haines’ Knives Don’t Have Your Back took a much more stripped-down approach than that of her band Metric, portions of Who Killed Amanda Palmer do focus more on the solo piano ballads, but Palmer and Folds are smart enough to not allow the entire record slip into a rut of stripped-down, Starbucks-friendly crooning, adding enough frills to keep things interesting for 54 minutes.
The album’s first six tracks are exceptional, and opening track “Astronaut” is as good as anything the Dresden Dolls have put out, the song’s insistent drumming very similar to Viglione’s impassioned beats. Co-producer Folds adorns the song with clever little trappings, though, underscoring Palmer’s sweeping piano chords with equally epic strings and the subtlest hint of a throbbing synth line, transforming it into a rather gorgeous orch-pop tune. Recorded spontaneously while on tour, the raucous “Leeds United” benefits greatly from its no-frills-approach, Palmer’s sloppy, coarse-throated howls accentuated by swaggering horns, while conversely, the tender “Blake Says” is a sweet Lou Reed homage, right down to its paraphrasing of the Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says”.
The Columbine-inspired “Strength Through Music” is a gorgeous, tragic look through the eyes of a teenaged mass-murderer, Palmer’s depiction as matter-of-fact as Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant. Her furious, breathlessly delivered lyrics on “Runs in the Family” are spit out like venom (“It runs in the family, I come by it honestly, do what you want ‘cause who knows, it might fill me up”), while the pretty “Ampersand” takes a far more restrained approach, her verses almost capricious instead of melodramatic: “The ghetto boys are catcalling me / As I pull my keys from my pocket / I wonder if this method of courtship / Has ever been effective…Still, I always shock them when I answer, ‘Hi my name’s Amanda.’”
Solo debuts by lead singers of established bands always tend to veer toward the self-indulgent, and indeed, Palmer’s album is no exception. Dead Kennedys guitarist East Bay Jay pops in to add some riffs to the electric piano-driven “Guitar Hero” and St. Vincent singer Annie Clark helps out on the cover of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?”, but while well-meaning, both songs ultimately feel unnecessarily tacked-on. “Have to Drive” teeters perilously close to disaster, choir and orchestra threatening to bloat the song to Mr. Creosote proportions, but Palmer’s grandiose melodies keep everything from spiraling out of control.
Who Killed Amanda Palmer rights itself in time to end on a very strong note. The darkly comic “Oasis” offsets its lyrics about date rape and abortion with clever do wop backing vocals arranged by Folds, while “The Point of it All” tackles the Drug-Addicted Friend Song with a freshness and compassion that always makes Palmer’s character sketches so compelling (“Oh, but no one can stare at the wall as good as you, my babydoll”). So typical of Palmer’s eclectic nature, this album is a sloppy but very endearing hodgepodge of styles, the mark of an artist so bursting at the seams with creativity, that we can’t help but admire even its imperfections.
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