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The Boston Phoenix - June 13 - 20, 2002

Karen Mantler Pet Sounds

by Jon Garelick

A quick glance at Karen Mantler’s body of work tempts one to write her off as a novelty or joke-song specialist. After all, what else can you say about a singer/composer who’s produced four albums that are mostly about pets (three specifically about her cat Arnold), with song titles "Wild or Tame?", "Life Is Sheep," "Go Fish," and "Why Not a Bear?" But the 36-year-old Mantler, daughter of jazz composers Carla Bley and Michael Mantler, is the real deal. Like her mother, she has a knack for writing music that’s at once ridiculously funny and deadly serious. At the Lizard Lounge a week ago Wednesday, as opening-slot guests of Wednesday-night residents the Dresden Dolls, she made her case.

Mantler is also like her mother in the way she personifies musical problems. Trombonist Gary Valente, with his massive, bearish tone, plays the buffo foil to her mourning, befuddled ingénue. When she sings, "Arnold, my only friend, now he’s dead," Valente answers with a braying minor interval that mimics the late pet’s name. At times, as the band pitched and yawed on Mantler’s swelling harmonies, she and Valente would break from song to deadpan dialogue: Valente: "I would like a moose to come to the house maybe . . ." Mantler: "Now I’m really confused." When Valente’s trombone barked, Mantler’s chromatic harmonica answered in a vibratoless, lyric extension of her voice. They complemented each other visually as well: Mantler tall and willowy in a cream-colored vest and black mini-skirt, with her mother’s trademark thatch of frizzy blond hair; Valente short, stout, and jacketed, topped by a tiny fedora hat, Ben Webster-style.

Mantler’s crew was reduced from her recordings: there was no guitarist or second horn, just Mantler switching from harmonica to keyboard, Arturo O’Farrill on second keyboard (piano or organ), Kato Hideki on bass, and Michael Evans on drums and glockenspiel. The music veered from sambas to full-on Latin vamps, "Moonlight Sonata" keyboard arpeggios, stretches of funk, and gently oom-pahing European cabaret. Evans was a marvel all night, steering the band through an obstacle course of rhythm changes, providing orchestral color as well as propulsion. Mantler’s music is so well designed and, in this case, so well played that it’s as filling and satisfying as it is light and airy.

The Dresden Dolls, meanwhile, take Mantler’s art-song leanings to the Violent Femmes end of American pop, with tales of romantic desperation and sexual confusion (the Replacements’ "Androgynous" made an appearance) delivered in spare arrangements for drums, keyboard, and voice. Amanda Palmer built her songs up from a hushed ballad delivery to unrequited wails while drummer Brian Viglione bashed his kit (an unofficial poll counted anywhere from two to four broken sticks). If Mantler weren’t making an appearance, the Dolls would still be worth a visit on their own.

As producer of the residency, Palmer (she was the producer of the recent Hotel Blanc at the Middle East and is generally known around Harvard Square as the Eight-Foot Bride) is also presenting between-music performances by the likes of Evan O’Television, who talks to a taped version of himself on a video monitor in a hilarious cross between Señor Wences and Ernie Kovacs. In fact, Kovacs would probably have appreciated the whole evening.