If there’s one thing Roadrunner Records knows how to do extremely well, it’s how to take full advantage of a band’s ultra-loyal fanbase by shamelessly squeezing every dollar out of them with release after release, even when the band doesn’t have any new material. In fact, they’ve perfected the practice, as lavishly designed, slightly expanded “deluxe” editions of albums come out a few months after the original release date, and often strategically coinciding with a prominent tour (these are called “Special Tour Editions”). Sometimes it yields a good product that improves upon the original, but most of the time, it’s nothing but a cash grab, knowing full well there are completists out there who will want to have every release their band puts out, no matter what.
So it was with a considerable degree of cynicism that this writer greeted Roadrunner’s new stopgap release of odds and sods by Boston cabaret punk darlings the Dresden Dolls. It’s been two years since the excellent Yes, Virginia… came out, it’s been nearly one year since the live DVD hit stores, and the much-anticipated solo debut by singer/pianist Amanda Palmer comes out in September, which means we probably won’t get a new Dresden Dolls full-length for quite a while. It all adds up to the label desperately wanting another product by one of its best artists to shill, and at first glance, the wryly titled No, Virginia… appears to be little more than a hastily assembled collection of the contents of one band’s musical junk drawer.
But then the music starts playing, and we’re instantly taken aback by just how enjoyable a CD this really is. Comprised of five new versions old compositions that were never recorded, old demos, a pair of unreleased session tracks from Yes, Virginia…, a b-side, and a cover, it’s a bit of a mess on paper, but that’s where the minimalist piano/drums approach works to Palmer’s and co-conspirator Brian Viglione’s advantage, as the simplicity of each track’s arrangements allows these songs to gel surprisingly well.
Palmer is at her best when focusing on character sketches, and the ones here are especially vivid. Bursting with the primal energy of Palmer’s pounded piano keys and Viglione’s harsh drumming, “Dear Jenny” offers snapshots from within a psychiatric ward (“Ashley talks to astronauts back home by way of fax transmission / Andy gets a new tattoo each time he gets back bathroom privilege”), while the more tender “Ultima Esperanza” compassionately depicts a legless woman who tries internet dating. The viciously funny “Night Reconnaissance” is a dead-on depiction of being a high school misfit (“Nothing is crueler than children who come from good homes”), spending time hiding from “the cunts” and exacting revenge by liberating their garden gnomes. Meanwhile, “Lonesome Organist Rapes Page Turner” is absolutely vicious, tragic on one hand, very darkly comic on the other, Palmer’s frantic vocal delivery teetering between despair and madness.
Underscored by a lazily plucked bass guitar, which is a rarity for this band, “The Gardener” is as cryptic as it is bleak (“My little misbegotten / You’re quite the stubborn bud / If we can’t make you open / We will take it out in blood”). On the other hand, “The Kill”‘s social commentary is much more thinly veiled, and although it would halve clashed thematically with the rest of the album, Palmer’s poignant melody is as strong as anything off Yes, Virginia…. And although it’s a rather straightforward performance, the spirited cover of the Psychedelic Furs classic “Pretty in Pink”, originally recorded for the John Hughes tribute CD High School Reunion in 2005, is great fun, a moment where Palmer ditches all her mannerisms and affectations, which can wear thin on some, in favor of something far less ostentatious.
Of course, No, Virginia… is not exactly above reproach, as “MouseAndTheModel” and “Boston” are a bit on the tedious, not to mention maudlin, side, and the addition of a live recording of their famous, scorching cover of “War Pigs” would have bolstered the album tremendously. As it is, though, it’s a very respectable compilation by one of the more clever bands in indie rock today, good enough to keep the Dresden Dolls’ fans satisfied for another year. Whether Roadrunner can go that long without a new product to plug is another story altogether.