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Boston Daily Free Press - December 7, 2003

Welcome to the Dollhouse: The strange, scary world of the Dresden Dolls

By Justin Conforti

Apparently, there's only one thing more fashionable than slapping on some white face paint, donning the ol' bowler hat and indulging in some baroquely realized eyebrows: managing your own band while running an independent record label.

By day, Dresden Dolls manager and Eight-Foot Records President Amanda Palmer works from a downtown business office in Chinatown - the same office that once housed Boston's cherished Mighty Mighty Bosstones. By night, she's the sweaty, sexy, piano-playing half of the Dresden Dolls, the latest band to capture Boston's attention. Alongside drummer, road manager and sometimes lover Brian Viglione, Palmer pumps out "Brechtian punk cabaret" - an esoteric label that wonderfully captures the Dolls' whimsical fusion of sleazy 1940's German cabaret with brash punk ethos.

On their way to a show in Northampton, the surprisingly down-to-earth Palmer and Viglione took turns driving their tour van and talking with the Muse about their adventures in business, their latest album and life as a Dresden Doll - a name, Palmer explained, that "evokes, for most people, the [Dresden] firebombings, juxtaposed with the idea of a doll, which is a delicate, childhood thing." Egad.

Though they have grown accustomed to their hectic lifestyles, which are dominated by all things Dresden Dolls, Palmer admitted that she's eager to eventually sign the band. "In my fantasy world, I wouldn't be doing anything myself. I'd be signed to a label that did all this work for me," she said.

Still, Palmer advises all aspiring musicians to practice the Dolls' borderline-obsessive method of band management and promotion.

"You can't neglect the business aspect of the band," she said.

"Make sure you stay in touch with everyone you meet. We mercilessly added people to our email list and promoted shows endlessly."

Eager to explicate the dynamics of our current rock climate, Palmer added, "We're doing this in an interesting time, when the music industry is collapsing. The [Do-It-Yourself] model is growing so quickly - and it's totally possible to do things by yourself, via the internet - that the old model of a band needing a label is getting less important and the ability of a band to run its own affairs and make its own decisions is getting more important."

After months of relentless promotion and tour dates, the Dresden Dolls' hard work has finally paid off, in the form of their smashing debut album, Dresden Dolls. Palmer and Viglione managed to capture the spirit of their rollicking live shows while tempering the songs into masterpieces of vocal and instrumental dynamic interplay.

Instead of crumbling under the pressures of recording a studio album, like other bands that carve their teeth on tons of live performances, the Dolls brought their perfectionism into the studio and focused intensely on production. The result is a startling collection of delicious musical confections: each song has a tart, angular, art-rock coating that hides a rich, gooey pop sensibility on the inside.

"The recording itself took three months," Viglione said. "We spent a lot of time with piano overdubs and vocals. It took something like 18 or 20 hours just for 'Girl Anachronism.' There was a lot of playing with noises and vocals to get them just like we wanted them."

Oh, we know just how the Dolls want it. For their album, these self-serious freakniks certainly loaded up at the grotesquery buffet - the songs drip with images of sex toys, botched operations, self-inflicted violence and statutory rape. Similar to the manner in which their talent as musicians outshines their theatrical images, the songs on Dresden Dolls draw equally on the zany energy of a nympho carnie and the conviction of singer/songerwriter.

Viglione provides a primal drumbeat on the stormy "Half Jack," which boasts a harmonized chant for a chorus and unveils Palmer as the first true heir to P.J. Harvey's dirty rock-goddess throne. "Coin-Operated Boy," a live staple and an obvious single, features a dippy toy piano, delectable double entendre and razor-sharp wit. (Pay attention for the twinkling, gorgeous piano as Palmer croons, "This bridge was written / to make you feel smitten.") The frenzied "Girl Anachronism" - in which Palmer declares herself the "world's worst accident" who "might join your century / but only as a doubtful guest" - witnesses the birth of Palmer's otherworldly Dolls persona.

Their website (www.dresdendolls.com) is chock full of the same wry brand of self-mythologizing. In her personal bio, Palmer takes you on her lifelong musical journey via artifacts - pages from old composition books, unhappy self-portraits and a troubling map of her soul - from her turbulent teen years.

Though Palmer - who gives off more white-hot star voltage than a factory-load of beloved pop tarts - certainly commands her lion's share of the attention and critical praise, intense sad sack Viglione and his fiercely reserved percussive acrobats provide the essential framework for the Dolls' dramatic chaos.

Viglione seems particularly deft at providing structural support for the Dolls' manic cabaret-punk.

"When Amanda brings a new song into rehearsal, I take each song completely on its own for what it is and try to compliment it," he explained. "I'll just listen and let the song wash over me. When the hairs on my neck prickle up - that's where I try to go first."

While Palmer plays the role of cool-as-a-cuke businesswoman, Viglione keeps the spirit of the music alive. He advised, "Don't lose sight of the music. Make sure that you're feeling passionate. If you want your band to make it, you need to follow through on all areas, be it the business relationships you're in or the music you're working on."

After a moment's paused, he added, "Remember why you're doing it and never lose yourself in the pursuit of success."

Let's hope the Dresden Dolls - a rare pair of workhorse performers with a taste for the absurd - can follow their own advice and ride the crazy train all the way to major label pampering and the trappings they have undoubtedly earned.