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The Boston Globe - September 26, 2003

Dresden dolls
Success comes in twos for a punk-cabaret act and a raucous garage-blues band, both toasting new CDs


By Joan Anderman, Globe Staff

The woman onstage doesn't look like a small-business owner. Her legs are spread and she's pummeling a piano. The harried young businesswoman is singing about a coin-operated boy, which would really simplify her love life. She is locked in a scary and delicious gaze with the drummer, whose face is painted white, and this helps her forget about the bookkeeping.

Art hurts when you're running a punk-cabaret duo. And we're not just talking about the tuneful explication of surgical blunders, statutory rape, and bloody wedding gowns.

Twenty-seven-year-old Amanda Palmer and 24-year-old Brian Viglione formed the Dresden Dolls in 2001, a week after they met at a Halloween party and experienced a musical mind meld. With a live show that fuses the theatrical whimsy of Kurt Weill and the raw fury of PJ Harvey, the Dresden Dolls are the most inventive act to come up in the Boston music scene since pretty much anyone can remember. The group's popularity is snowballing, and Palmer and Viglione are living in a state that might be described as anxious euphoria. On the one hand, dreams are coming true. On the other, Palmer hasn't written a song in a year and a half.

The Dresden Dolls are celebrating the release of their first full-length CD (produced by indie-fringe veteran Martin Bisi) tonight at the Paradise, but there's hardly a moment to bask in the glory. Palmer manages the band and runs Eight Foot Records, their label, and these days she spends more time at a desk than at the piano. Viglione -- the Dresden Dolls' de facto road manager -- must master the finer points of contracts and riders and load-ins before their first tour begins on Sunday. There will be no roadie, no sound guy, not even a pal to man the merchandise table in nightclubs. That's Palmer's job.

''We'll run our own band, run our label, and prove as artists throughout the ages have proven -- when they've had control over their artistic paths they know where to go and what to do,'' says Palmer, curled in a chair in the enchanted South End house she and several other artists share with the benevolent owner, who lives on the third floor. ''If you can do it on your own successfully, I think you don't have to worry as much about being at the mercy of the major label that comes and scoops you up. I'm not trying to follow the Ani DiFranco `I will never sign!' model, because I don't want to run a small business for the rest of my life.'' Anyone who's seen the Dresden Dolls perform knows that the eventual scooping up is a given.

''They were the best unsigned band I'd seen in the Rumble since 'Til Tuesday,'' says Oedipus, vice president of programming for WBCN-FM (104.1). The Dresden Dolls won the Rumble this year, and Oedipus has been a major supporter of the band ever since, putting them in touch with managers, booking agents, and label executives -- all of whom are currently courting the band. ''They're ahead of their time, they don't sound like anyone else, and they're going to achieve greatness.''

''To use the parlance of the vulgar, I was blown away,'' says Sean Slade, co-producer with partner Paul Kolderie of Hole's ''Live Through This'' and Radiohead's ''Pablo Honey.'' The pair just completed a radio edit for the Dresden Dolls' ''Coin-Operated Boy.'' ''It's the real deal. They should get over to Europe as soon as they can, where people are open to more adventurous stuff.''

For all their deeply theatrical, intensely symbiotic musicality, Palmer and Viglione are a couple of cool cucumbers when it comes to navigating their careers. Poised on the verge of signing with an indie label earlier this year, Palmer concluded that if she put the same amount of energy she was investing in contract negotiations into running her own company, they'd make twice the money and maintain complete creative control. Plus, there are other control issues. They both laugh -- dark, unfunny laughs -- when the word perfectionism is mentioned.

''That's one of the first problems that came up when new opportunities started to come to the band,'' says Viglione. ''The division of labor.''

''I have a very hard time,'' Palmer notes, ''working in group situations.''

Hear clips from the Dresden Dolls' new CD at www.boston.com/ae/music.Which may explain Palmer's great success in her last job -- traversing New England as a living statue called the Eight-Foot Bride. Viglione has been fired in rapid succession from his last three day jobs, in various food and retail establishments, for playing the music too loud. The two of them touch and kiss and disagree a lot. Their onstage personas are profoundly sexual. When asked if they are lovers, Palmer lets loose a strange squeal and Viglione says, ''Oh my god.'' ''Not officially,'' she explains. ''I mean, we have been, but we don't function as boyfriend and girlfriend.''

Palmer's songs are fueled by the same sort of amorphous passion. As detailed on the band's website (www.dresdendolls

.com), her first boyfriend was full of hate and turned her on to the ideal soundtrack for a tortured suburban adolescence: the Legendary Pink Dots, Dead Can Dance, Current 93, Kraftwerk. It's nearly impossible to picture Palmer growing up in leafy Lexington, although one imagines that it might well have functioned as a useful foil for a girl who ditched school and sketched maps of her damaged soul. Viglione spent his childhood in Greenville, N.H. -- population 7,000 -- listening to Nirvana and Primus, Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, Handel and Haydn. He describes his role in the band as that of a wall.

''A lot of things get bounced off of me,'' says Viglione. ''I let the songs reverberate. I listen to the lyrics intently, because that's the foundation of it. And I mainly focus on embellishing the emotional content. Amanda delivers a line, and I sort of answer. It's a pretty beautiful balance that way.''

Not surprisingly, tonight's CD release party will be more than a rock show. Two performance-art groups, a stand-up comic, video art, peep-show sculptures, and living statues will help transform the proceedings into the kind of imagination-saturated affair the Dresden Dolls feed on. Palmer is single-handedly decorating the club. And preparing to launch a CD. And doing final edits on the Dresden Dolls' first video, for ''Girl Anachronism,'' whose plot bears a striking resemblance to Palmer's life.

''I wake up in the morning having had a portentous dream that I'm supposed to rehearse with Brian,'' says Palmer, who conceptualized the video with one of her housemates, a videographer named Michael Pope. ''I realize I'm late and I'm so distracted and have so much happening that I can't even make it from the bed through the house and down through the garden without the comedy of errors. I'm battling all my personal demons, like my mother in the kitchen and myself in the bathroom. The concept is basically split personalities and this crazy, crazy life.''

''It's 100 percent reality,'' says Viglione.

''Every time I see it,'' Palmer says, ''I get happier and happier.''