For all the Marcel Marceau greasepaint, garter belts, bowler hats, and lipstick, there’s no façade whatsoever when it comes to the music of Boston’s the Dresden Dolls. Emotional, honest, and often blackly comedic to the point where you don’t know whether to laugh or to squirm, singer/pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione are unflinching in their performances, hammering out Kurt Weill-inspired chord progressions and massive, Bonham-esque percussion with an intensity that’s a long way away from the music of the more sullen piano balladeers of the world. When Walsh snarled, “Sappy songs about sex and cheating / Bland accounts of two lovers meeting / Make me want to give mankind a beating”, on their well-received 2004 eponymous debut, she might as well have been declaring the Dresden Dolls’ mission statement, because, in two short years, the duo are responsible for not only providing us with some of the most indelible lyrical images in recent memory (from coin-operated boys, to breakdown-inducing Jeep Cherokees), but also for bringing some theatricality, snarkiness, and most importantly, some life back into a sound that, in the post-Lilith Fair years, had seriously wilted.
Equally capable of great wit, self-effacing humor, and raw, feral anger, the Dolls always manage to effortlessly balance the saucy and the explicit, the tender and the confrontational, and whether they’re singing “Baby One More Time” dressed as a frighteningly identical pair of Brit-Brits (as they did as part of their infamous New York set on Halloween, 2004), or letting loose a jaw-dropping cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, they sell it like any good artist would, and skeptics who might have scoffed at the band’s visuals and musical histrionics early on are eventually won over by both the interplay between the pair and their engaging tunes.
The debut album was rife with musical references to pre-World War II German cabaret music (composers Weill and Bertolt Brecht, as well as the Dadaist movement are massive influences on Palmer), but while that sound has not been completely abandoned, it has been toned down a touch on Yes, Virginia…. Recorded under the tutelage of the well-known Boston producing tandem of Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, the new album is simpler, with a more minimal approach to the instrumentation, but at the same time possesses a streamlined, polished sound that makes for a much more accessible, mainstream-friendly record. Devoted fans shouldn’t quite start up with their declarations of “J’accuse!” quite yet, because while the first album was more adventurous, Virginia‘s newfound focus suits the Dresden Dolls to a tee.
To no one’s surprise, the subject matter on Yes, Virginia… is as provocative as ever, but unlike, say, a Nellie McKay (whose music can be charming one minute and condescending the next), there’s a sincerity prevalent in all of Palmer’s vivid character sketches, made more evident by the more subtle approach to her singing, which tended to get a touch overwrought on the debut. “Sex Changes” isn’t far removed from the sound of the debut, with Palmer exploring the sexual identity theme while Viglione provides taut, punchy drum fills that are bolstered by the more muscular production. Palmer’s vocal phrasing starts to resemble that of Aimee Mann on the rollicking “Dirty Business”, singing wryly of “the kind of girl who leaves out condoms on the dresser / Just to make you jealous of the men she fucked before you met her”, while “Delilah” paints a compassionate, yet frustrated portrait of an abusive relationship (“You thought you could change the world by opening your legs… try kicking them instead”). In less capable hands, “First Orgasm” might have rung hollow, but the sense of loneliness Palmer depicts is more startling than the subject matter (“A lover would just complicate my plans”), a theme that arises later on in the equally forlorn torch tune “Me & the Minibar” (“I was so excited to do such normal things with you / When you left last night with your toothbrush dry”).
If there’s one aspect of the debut that the new album lacks, it’s the kind of bold songs that continue where the clever “The Jeep Song” left off, but while a successful follow-up to such a brilliant evocation of ’60s girl groups is a tall order, there are enough memorable, hook-filled songs on Yes, Virginia… to offset its more dramatic pieces. The vicious lyrics of “Backstabber” are underscored by a lovely piano/drums combo that will have sullen pubescent girls rallying around the “Shit brother! Off-brusher!” chorus, while the battle-between-the-sexes drama of “Shores of California” is matched by a melody as effervescent as its title would indicate. The clear winner, though, is the album-closing “Sing”. A sleeper hit in the making, Palmer unapologetically goes for a people-pleasing ballad, complete with sentiment that could be cynically described as corny, and pulls it off beautifully. “Life is no cabaret”, sings Palmer, stripping away the duo’s seemingly ironic front to show the genuineness lurking beneath, and daring us to accept it. You might not want to sing at first, but Palmer and Viglione are going to keep on playing until you do. As Palmer sings, “You motherfuckers will sing someday”.