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The Boston Phoenix - September 26 - October 2, 2003
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Art Breakers
The irresistible draw of the Dresden Dolls

by brett milano

Last week the Dresden Dolls opened their new band office in Chinatown, taking over a prime space that was formerly occupied by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. At their inaugural party, you couldn’t miss the sense that a whole new style was moving in: next to the Bosstones’ gold records on the walls hung the Dolls’ artful gig flyers and their abstract paintings and silkscreens of group members Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione in various guises. Even their choice of refreshments — red wine and sushi instead of beer and Red Bull — indicated that the Dolls were throwing a different kind of party.

It really did seem like a changing of the guard. True, the Bosstones will remain a local institution for as long as they care to be one. But if there’s been one local band who’ve been impossible to avoid in recent months — a band who’ve appeared on at least three magazine covers so far, who won this year’s Rumble, and whose new homonymous disc (on their own Eight Foot label) is one of the year’s most eagerly awaited — that would be the Dresden Dolls. They’ve been so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget what a coup they’ve pulled off: piano/drum duos with art-scene backgrounds and cabaret leanings have never been a local-scene staple. But the Dolls have gotten Boston to pay attention to a stack of complex, proudly emotive, not-necessarily-pop songs. And with a fashion sense somewhere between the film Cabaret and early Kiss, Palmer and Viglione have also thrown a subversive spin on the usual notions of rock glamor and sexiness. The result just might represent the new, artfully painted-up face of Boston music.

Talking a brief breather before the office party, Palmer gives some thought to the band’s rise. "I’ll tell you exactly how we did it. It’s happening now because we played such eclectic venues when the band was starting; we never played the Abbey or the Middle East. Instead we were doing house parties, lofts, and galleries — that’s where we got our initial fan base. And those people disseminated information throughout their social circle. We didn’t get the local rock scene at first, and we don’t really have it now." Adds Viglione, "A lot of our friends have been inspired to go off and do something creative themselves. But I think we’re moderately resented by the Boston rock crowd, because we’re not really a rock band."

Indeed, a number of local rock cynics, myself included, were put off by the Dolls’ image before we’d given their music a fair chance. You could see their photo shoots — especially the one in the Noise last year, where Palmer and Viglione re-created a famous John Lennon/Yoko Ono photo — and think this was some kind of theatrical, art-school project. Which it is. But their visuals are as important as Bowie’s were in his Ziggy Stardust period — part of the picture, but hardly the whole point. It was only after witnessing their Rumble set that I fell for the emotional songwriting, Viglione’s polyrhythmic drumming, and especially Palmer’s deep and torchy vocals.

Those elements all come forward on the new CD — their first official release, though an earlier disc of live and demo tracks has been selling at gigs. New York producer Martin Bisi (a long-time member of the Bill Laswell/Material axis) doesn’t interfere much with the live sound — extra guitars and strings are used sparingly. But he does help tighten the arrangements. A long-time live standout, "Coin Operated Boy," shimmers enough to be an obvious single, but the real gems are the deeper tracks, notably the opening "Good Day," which is gorgeous in a dark, Cocteau Twins way. When Palmer writes about romantic and sexual crises on "Half Jack," she sounds quietly obsessive. And when she does air some post-teen angst in "Girl Anachronism," their one screaming punk song, the mania is exhilarating. Equally surprising is "The Jeep Song," a funny rant about the number of those vehicles in Boston on which Palmer seems to be sending up her own vocal style. The Brecht/Weill influences are clear at times, but the sound is usually too muscular to be anything but rock.

It’s not surprising that the two members come from different backgrounds: Viglione grew up practicing drums in his bedroom, whereas Palmer always saw herself as more of an all-round performer. "One thing we do have in common is that we wanted to be rock stars," she says. "That sounds really embarrassing, but it’s true — I grew up feeling I couldn’t imagine being anything else but a songwriter who was on stage. I’d say that I’m a passable piano player, a passionate piano player. But I get jealous of people like Brian who are total musicians, because I don’t consider myself one."

"That’s bullshit," Viglione shoots back at her. "I hate to hear you say things like that. You should consider it a blessing that you’re so well rounded."

"No really, it’s true," Palmer replies. "When I grew up, the performers I admired were musicians, and I related to that. And there was a piano in the house, so I related to that as well. But I could do some other kind of performance and still get my rocks off."

True enough, since Palmer had a local profile before anyone realized she was a musician, thanks to the "Eight Foot Bride," a living-statue performance that she did in Harvard Square. A towering Palmer in whiteface and bridal gown became a familiar sight, and something of a crush magnet. "I was in love with it myself," she notes. "It started out as a way to make money, because I abhorred the idea of having a job. But it became this beautiful intersection of art and commerce. The Eight Foot Bride is just this simple, compassionate performer. All she does is emanate love to the women and children of the world."

Is that anything like Palmer’s true personality? "It’s in there. The Eight Foot Bride doesn’t have an ounce of irony; she’s a street performer who loves and is loved. Amanda Palmer in the Dresden Dolls is this tortured, painfully introspective, sexy freak. And the real me is a little of both."

Still, it’s worth noting that the Dresden Dolls didn’t dress up at all in the early days. The whiteface and costumes came in only after they they’d guested at a Burlesque Revival Association show, but it’s been a trademark ever since. "Why do we feel the need to do that?" Palmer asks herself. "For one thing, it’s a lot more gratifying for me to have my show persona — at the core, it makes me feel like more of a performer. And it serves to draw people in, so you can start bludgeoning them with heavily emotional shit. And besides, we’re clowns. We love the idea of putting on a show and being entertaining." Adds Viglione, "I could easily do the shirtless-drummer thing, but this band isn’t about grunge. You could look at someone like Kurt Cobain and figure that he was wearing a costume as well." And Palmer concludes, "But really, neither of us is image conscious. By the time we get off stage, we always look like hell, full of sweat with the make-up running down our faces. That’s why we’re disappointed to play shorter shows, because we still look good when they’re done."

With the new office up and running, the Dolls expect to be spending as much of the coming months doing business as making music. And despite their profile in town, the future isn’t guaranteed, especially since they wound up forming their own label after negotiations with a few high-profile indies didn’t come off. Then again, it’s hard to imagine any outside-label owners being as energetic as these two are. "You wouldn’t believe the number of people who don’t get it," Palmer says. "I’ve talked to five promoters who wouldn’t work with us because they don’t do goth bands. And I said, ‘Right, did you listen to the CD or just look at the cover?’ But it’s exciting to play in town and see the cross-section of people who are into the band. And if that’s how the rest of the country is going to respond, then I know we’re doing all right."

SO YOU’RE SICK OF HEARING about all the legendary bands who played the Paradise 25 years ago and want to be convinced that it all really happened? Then head to the club between now and October 22, when the photo show "Visions of Paradise" will be hanging in the front room and the balcony. Showing their work will be a cross-section of local music photographers including Phoenix/Globe contributor Paul Robicheau (who was at those early U2 shows), Phoenix contributor Eric Antoniou, and Liz Linder, plus WFNX personality Julie Kramer, musicians Dave Tree and Jill "Chilly" Kurtz, and Fenway Recordings honcho Mark Kates. Fortunately, all the photographers have a different idea of which shows were legendary, so you get shots of everything from Peter Gabriel’s first tour to Sinéad O’Connor’s local debut (when she rode in on the biggest hype of her career, sold the place out in hours, brought in the Smiths’ rhythm section, and played for 45 minutes) to hardcore matinees with SSD and Sam Black Church. And yes, someone shot of one of those Sunday nights in the mid ’80s when Deadheads came to groove to a bunch of Vermont hicks calling themselves Phish.

THE NEW, ARTFULLY PAINTED-UP FACE OF BOSTON MUSIC? Palmer and Viglione have thrown a subversive spin on the usual notions of rock glamor and sexiness.