I remember when the Dresden Dolls first came out. All my friends who knew my tastes told me I had to check them out, that I would love this duo. I’d ask what they were like and would get, “They’re a cross between goth and cabaret,” to which I’d reply, thanks but no thanks. It was totally a knee-jerk reaction but during this time, I was receiving a lot of promo material from a metal label that started focusing on the goths. After a month, I had a stack of CDs with black-lipped women moaning about the “exquisite death” and “sensual pain,” followed quickly by shrieks that could only be produced by someone giving birth to a schoolbus. Thank you and no, said I, to the Dresden Dolls.
Cut to three weeks ago. I’m in the local bookstore. It’s rather a liberal atmosphere there, meaning they’re not afraid to play CDs with the dirty words in them, so I’m listening as I rifle through the graphic novels section. It’s sounding pretty good, in fact. It’s piano rock, a super-sub-genre that’s been hurting lately. I was disappointed with the recent Regina Spektor and Tori Amos albums and the category as a whole often slides into Adult Contemporary blather about undying love or line after line of toothless affirmations. What was playing had, dare I say it, some edge left to it. I went to the counter and asked what it was.
“Oh, that’s Amanda Palmer. She’s from the Dresden Dolls.” Oops. “It’s been out for almost half a year now.” Double oops.
The album smacks you into place right from the start. “Astronaut: A Short History of Nearly Nothing” features the bashing piano of producer Ben Folds, exhibiting the fire we’ve been hoping for from his own work but have been missing. The arrangement consists of piano, bass, drums and cello for the most part, and those elements instantly put you into AC territory, but Palmer adds the buckshot with her voice. She can sing pretty and often does, but she’s not content to shrink and swoon. If she wants to rip, she lets it rip as on the single, “Guitar Hero” but the main thing about the record is that when it is beautiful, it’s also gutsy. When it is bleak, it’s grounded. There are no moments of eye-rolling cliche and, thankfully, no bus midwifery.
Palmer also knows how to surround herself with good people, not only Folds but St. Vincent herself, Annie Clark, dueting on the Rogers and Hammerstein standard “What’s The Use Of Wond’rin?” or East Bay Ray from Dead Kennedys. That such a song as that precedes the dark, black comedy of “Oasis” just points to great sequencing. The entire album works as a continuous piece even with all these highlights, and I would suggest that’s the way to listen to it. While it might not fit the bill for those who are itching to dance, it’s an experience worth sitting down for. Aside from having Folds involved, the album has that exceptional weight found on the Ben Folds Five classic, The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner, and if a few people catch on it may well be as fondly remembered over time. If that album got deep into your brain when you heard it, you need to hear Who Killed Amanda Palmer, and unlike your intrepid reviewer, do it sooner than later.