The Providence Journal - Providence, RI
February 5, 2005
Dressing up the German cabaret era
The Dresden Dolls have the sound, and the look
by RICK MASSIMO
They call their music "Brechtian punk cabaret," and that's not a bad description, but the Boston-based piano-and-drums duo The Dresden Dolls might be best described as pre-rock punk rock. Pianist-singer Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione bash their way through Weimar Republic-style beer-hall stomps and piano-based rock, with Palmer's depressive lyrics and dramatic vocal style (sort of a more tuneful Nico) as the gateway into a compelling picture of obsession and depression, served up (mostly) with a smile.
On "Girl Anachronism," the first locally released single from their self-titled debut studio album, they start and stop on a dime as Palmer wails, "You can tell by the scars on my arms/ And the cracks in my hips/ And the dents in my car/ And the blisters on my lips/ That I'm not the carefullest of girls." Later, in "Gravity," Palmer asks, "If I could attack with a more sensible approach/ Obviously that's what I'd be doing, right?" And "The Jeep Song" is a glorious pop gem about seeing an ex-lover's car, or least one of the same make and color, everywhere you go: "I try to see it in reverse/ It makes the situation hundreds of times worse/ When I wonder if it makes you want to cry/ Every time you see a light blue Volvo driving by."
And that's just the music. Visually, the Dolls recall the Weimar era even more dramatically, with Palmer and Viglione performing in whiteface and black vintage clothing (in Viglione's case) and lingerie (in Palmer's).
It seems too precious for words, and it is until you hear them and realize that they bring the goods. Viglione is a master of precise dynamics and muscular drum fills, and Palmer plays piano with manic energy but also impeccable chops.
So far, it's worked well. The band's first West Coast shows, including appearances at the Sundance Film Festival and on the Jimmy Kimmel late-night TV show, have won the Dolls a new fan base. And "Coin-Operated Boy," their first nationally released single, has won nationwide airplay, particularly for its intricate video. The Dolls are planning to start work on a new record in July, and "Girl Anachronism" should soon be released nationwide, Viglione says.
Palmer and Viglione met, appropriately, at a Halloween party hosted by Palmer. Not long after that, they started playing, and hit it off right away, Viglione says from Boston.
"Within the first five minutes we clicked up really well. . . . It was the missing link in what we'd both been waiting for our entire lives."
The sound and look of the German cabaret era had long been a favorite of both of theirs. "The old-time, Weimar-era cabaret style is a look, and carries the sort of sentimentality, that resonated with us," Viglione says. " . . . There's an inherent romanticism to it," Viglione says, "and I think we both have a deep respect for the artistry of the musicians of that day. . . . You had to know your stuff; everyone was extremely accomplished. There's been a homogenization and a breakdown of that over the past few years that isn't as attractive to us as the beautiful music and quality that came from that period."
". . . The cabaret scene, a beautiful part of that was something that married very vulnerable and often humorous musical and lyrical content into a very intimate setting. . . . And I think that's something Amanda and I relate to very closely -- having a real exchange with the audience, rather than making a standard night out at a rock club, with people mindlessly coming and going and not really having been affected."
The look took a little while to come about, Viglione says. At first, they wore regular street clothes. "It was all about the music -- we didn't want anything to distract from the purpose and the vision of the music." Then they did a show with a burlesque troupe, which inspired Palmer to put on lingerie and Viglione a suit. "It just was the perfect component that had been missing, and freed us up even more. . . . It went from the total punk-rock aesthetic to incorporating the Rocky Horror elements and the '30s elements and cross-dressing elements and everything that's inside both of us and brought it to the forefront."
Palmer used to be a street performer who would act as a living statue. It helped develop her theatrical style, and, Vigione says, some of the group's fans "decorate" the shows themselves.
"It made [for] really beautiful ornaments around the club to have people dressed in these elaborate costumes, and we got a kick out of it, so we ran with it," Viglione says. "And now we've found that kids take it far beyond what we expected, designing really incredible costumes and handing out illustrations and poems. . . . It's nice; you go out on tour and have this new group of friends come out and meet you; it's really wonderful."
The Dresden Dolls are at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, 79 Washington St., Providence, tonight at 7:30. Regina Spektor and The Redwalls open. Tickets are $9.95; call (401) 331-5876.