The Dresden Dolls played in Washington, DC last night at the 9:30 Club with deliciously messy kabuki freakshow opening act, The Red Paintings. I was clearly one of the older people (in professor uniform) in an audience comprised of an assortment of goths, cabaret punkers, teenyboppers in boas, DC chic-lensed hipsters, and wannabe performance artists. Lots of fishnet stockings, black, and glitter. But, hey, I was much less comfortable seeing Los Lobos a couple of years ago among middle-aged types with gray ponytails, especially when the band ended with The Who's "My Generation" and everyone sang along. Clearly, none of that crowd was actually hoping to die before they grew old. They would have been dead already. I had to bolt. I'm more at home with The Dolls' crowd, what was known years ago as a Cure crowd (toss in a dab of Kiss or glam-era Bowie). The boy in the jack-in-the-box with his party-dress girl/assistant. The electronic, painted kabuki man. The soap-bubble blowers. The Dolls' music inspires the scene.
Calling their music "Brechtian cabaret punk," Amanda Palmer (piano and vocals) and Brian Viglione (drums and the occasional guitar) put on a hell of a vaudeville punk show, the two instruments and the voice belting out significant energy. Honestly, in my if-I-were-a-rockstar moments, I've been waiting on writing that undermines pop tropes as the simple interpretations of love that they are. The blues and some country music get much closer to the realities of love and hate. Pop music has tended to wallow in idealistically sweet moments, seldom venturing even into the territory where the roses in the vase are dead.
Palmer's lyrics lay out typical figures of emotional popsong love, heartbreak and sex, her voice setting them up in a young girl's innocent lament (and desire for "fickle little bitch romance") only to be ripped apart by her punk sensibility, turned over and inside out, exposing brief glimpses of fragility and pain, concealing them again behind the theatrical wink of cabaret sexual wisdom, revealing them again like a faintly lifted skirt, flirting with their truth and their absurdities. "You can tell from the scars on my arms and cracks in my hips and the dents in my car and the blisters on my lips that I'm not the carefullest of girls... I'm the girl anachronism."
Her piano teases with playful tinkling at the moments where the little girl ought to know better, and the keys are pulverized in moments of pain which her powerful voice expresses with the faintest and loveliest of tired cracks, as if her vocal chords were an extension of heartbreak. "And when I let him in I feel my stitches getting sicker. I try to wash him out but like she said: the blood is thicker. I see my mother in my face, but only when I travel. I run as fast as I can run but Jack comes tumbling after...."
While Palmer is clearly the star of the duo with her terrific voice and energy, Viglione is the mime-like partner. But he's also one of the best rock drummers I've heard in some time.
There are a number of sounds hinted at in his drums apart from the standard punk beats and naughty cabaret tinkering - some jazz, some metal bombast, and even the slightest touches of having at some point listened to Latin American percussion. The guy could play in any band, and Palmer could go solo. But Palmer and Viglione are, in the end, the perfect musical couple.
I have no idea how much staying power The Dolls have, whether their act will grow old at some point like so much pop music. I suspect we're witnessing stars, a band that should be "big" in some sense of the word. The "big" may remain among a growing, idiosyncratic group of fans since their music and act runs beyond tastes that prefer to remain in the territory of live roses in the vase.
Check out some of their downloadable songs. Go see this band. Enjoy the friendly and proudly odd crowd. Have a good time with some terrific music that has it. Do it in garters, boas, and pancake makeup.