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My "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" review

September 19th, 2008

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The Dresden Dolls adhere to a pretty simple formula: Amanda Palmer on piano and vocals, Brian Viglione behind the drums. Occasionally they’ll add a guitar to the mix, but that’s pretty rare. It’s a simple, raw sound with aggressive vocals, intensely personal lyrics and drums that can carry an entire orchestra if they had to.

“Who Killed Amanda Palmer” brings in that orchestra.

Palmer told The Potomac News last year that she originally envisioned “Who Killed Amanda Palmer,” her solo album, as a basic, stripped down disc, just her and a piano. That was the plan, at least, until piano rocker Ben Folds stepped in and offered his Nashville studio and production skills (he previously produced William Shatner’s surprising “Has Been”). So instead of a raw piano therapy session, “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” is fully blown with strings, synthesizers, horns and, of course, lots of piano front and center.

It’s a smart decision. Palmer’s talent has never been her versatility on the keys. She’s good, but her piano typically serves the song, not the other way around. In other words, don’t expect any high-octane solos. Instead, “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” is a fantastic showcase of everything Dresden Dolls fans have come to love about Palmer — her stories about the sticky and darker aspects of relationships, gender and sexuality, intensely autobiographical and fictionalized.

There’s plenty of big rock numbers, from the big-chorus opener “Astronaut” to Palmer pushing her vocals to their limits on “Leeds United.” But the best moments are the near-bookend ballads “Ampersand” and “The Point Of It All” — not just because Folds had the good sense to accentuate the emotion a string arrangement.

On “Ampersand,” a gorgeous waltz, Palmer belts out how she won’t live her life on one side of an ampersand, but would rather live on her own terms, no man necessary. “The Point Of It All” is about trying to help a drug addict friend (or an Alzheimer’s afflicted parent? It’s unclear from the lyrics on their own). But it doesn’t matter. “The Point Of It All” is so captivating you’ll stop whatever you’re doing for all of its nearly five and a half minutes.

The only misstep is a cover of Roger and Hammerstein’s “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’” with lead vocals from Annie Clark of St. Vincent. Yeah, Palmer likes show tunes, that’s cool, but this one just doesn’t work in context of the other tracks, except as an odd into to “Oasis,” the catchiest song on the album.

“Oasis” is fun and upbeat, but stop listening to the melody and pay attention to those lyrics. Palmer, singing as a clueless younger girl, gets raped at a party, goes for an abortion and only worries about showing up her friend Melissa Mahoney with an autographed Oasis photo.

It’s the same dark humor that permeates some of The Dresden Dolls’ better numbers (“Shores of California”). Sure, Palmer can be dead serious, but it’s the humor and wit that makes her the perfect collaborator for Folds. This doesn’t show up on most of the songs, but it’s really about their personalities gelling together on disc. Folds duets with Regina Spektor, another piano rocker, on his upcoming album. It’s okay on its own terms, but compared to the magic he and Palmer work here, it’s practically lifeless. 

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072

New to Amanda Palmer and The Dresden Dolls? Staff writer Josh Eiserike picks his 10 favorite songs.

A Night At The Roses- Good Day 7”, 2003

The Jeep Song- The Dresden Dolls, 2004

Backstabber- Yes, Virginia, 2006

Delilah- Yes, Virginia, 2006

Shores of California- Yes, Virginia, 2006

Two Headed Boy- Neutral Milk Hotel Cover, Live At the Roundhouse London 2006 DVD, 2007

Ultima Esperanza- No, Virginia, 2008

Astronaut- Who Killed Amanda Palmer, 2008

Ampersand- Who Killed Amanda Palmer, 2008

The Point Of It All- Who Killed Amanda Palmer, 2008

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