Dolls Don’t Toy With Emotion!


I get frustrated sometimes. Like when I go to see an exciting new band and I can count the audience members on my hands. Or when I hear a tired old Elton John song on the radio for the third time in two hours.

One thing that's sure to cheer me up is thinking about the Dresden Dolls. Not that they're cheery. Oh, no. Their goth-punk-cabaret is doomy and dirty. "My Alcoholic Friends" and "Backstabber" are two of their more upbeat titles.

But the Dresden Dolls are proof that, sometimes, people get it.

On their second trip to Philly, in 2004, Boston-based singer-keyboardist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione had gotten little press and no air play. Forget about finding their CD in stores. Sharing an anti-Valentine's Day bill with some writers at Doc Watson's Pub, they played songs from their self-released debut. Not an auspicious debut.

And they killed.

The room was packed. The audience was singing along to tunes that hadn't been shoved down their throat. The only explanation I can think of is that the duo was great — and people responded to that.

Since then, they've come back several times, opening for progressively bigger headliners: Mission of Burma, Regina Spektor, Nine Inch Nails, Panic! at the Disco.

Their second album, "Yes, Virginia," doesn't have the thrill of the unexpected, but it's just as tight and biting as their first. Viglione steps up the rhythm on their best songs, drawing Palmer into theatrical conniptions. Even at a fever pitch, they never lose their cool.

Palmer doesn't use profanity gratuitously, and she doesn't conjure depravity just to provoke.

"Modern Moonlight" takes a jab at capitalism; "Delilah" disses a human doormat as "the princess of denial." "Shores of California" is a pithy little number about romantic dysfunction that manages to alternate "since the animals and Noah" with "Aristophanes and Homer."

Profanity is part of the appeal of the Dresden Dolls; songs are profane because the world is. And you can be sure that Palmer has thought hard about every provocation. She wants you to as well.

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When does a sellout maintain its integrity? When it's even artier and less accessible than the thing that inspired it. Like, say, an a cappella take on classic rock.

It's hard to say whether "Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out" is a weirder listening experience if you're a fan of Petra Haden or of the Who. If you've spent a few decades with "The Who Sell Out," it has to be disconcerting to hear it filtered through a woman who was born four years after the record came out.

If you loved '90s alt-rock, you might wonder how Haden went from playing with indie-rock cuties that dog to covering a dinosaur act.

The back story goes like this: Former Minutemen/fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt gave Haden an eight-track cassette recorder and suggested she reinterpret his old fave. The singer/violinist/keyboardist — not much of a Who fan herself — immersed herself in the 1967 concept album as a favor.

It took a few years, but when Haden was done, she'd recreated the whole thing on her own. There aren't any violins or keyboards on the CD, let alone guitar, drums and bass; it's just layer upon layer upon layer of Haden's expressive, malleable voice.

"Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out" is a technical feat, to be sure. Every riff in its nearly 40 minutes — every hum, every beat, every bit of static — comes through Haden's mouth.

Unfortunately, the exercise reveals the weakness of her source material.

She does some pretty things with "Odorono" and "I Can't Reach You," but to ears unburdened by expectations, most of Pete Townsend's and John Entwistle's compositions come off spacey, stale and hopelessly corny. No wonder Keith Moon was so exalted; these lyrics are begging to be drowned out by loud drums.


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