All Dolled Up
Music Preview: Dresden Dolls
It's no secret that sex sells.
Nearly every advertisement uses some form of sensual coercion to get you to open your wallet. The same can be said for modern music; from Britney Spears to The Strokes, today's stars fulfill consumer fantasies of glamour and raunchy indulgence. Unfortunately, the sounds themselves are more plasticized than provocative.
Well, get ready for the revolution. "Brechtian punk-cabaret" duo the Dresden Dolls are rewriting the rules of attraction through tantalizing tunes with lascivious wit.
The band's nonconformist extravagance owes much to the cabaret of Weimar-era Germany, where highbrow music and lurid theatrics briefly flourished between World Wars. With the rise of the Third Reich, however, cabaret was brutally suppressed and became a historical curio. Now, it's being revived by a new generation of performers. In Vermont, we've got Spielpalast. Nationally, several bands are borrowing from cabaret culture, including the Big Apple's Antony & the Johnsons and Gogol Bordello. Then there's Boston's Dresden Dolls, who make their first local appearance at the Higher Ground Ballroom this Thursday.
Dresden Dolls came together in 2001, following a chance meeting of pianist/singer Amanda Palmer and percussionist Brian Viglione at a Halloween party. Soon after, they snagged first place in the WBCN Rumble, Boston's long-running battle of the bands. A self-released 2003 EP attracted the attention of long-running independent label Roadrunner Records, who put out their eponymous full-length last year. Now a certifiable cult phenomenon, the Dolls have earned loyal fans and critical raves with their passionate tunes and striking persona. Nine Inch Nails honcho Trent Reznor recently hand-picked the duo as his opening band, and the infamous, nationally syndicated sex-advice columnist Dan Savage implored "everyone on Earth" to buy their CDs.
Much of Dresden Dolls' cabaret influence can be seen in their highly stylized image. The duo performs in white face paint, lips and eyebrows dramatically accentuated. Viglione is fond of wearing black suits, red ties and a bowler hat, tilted rakishly forward. Palmer favors a short, one-piece dress coupled with striped stockings.
"We both just let go of our preconceptions of who we felt we had to be," Viglione recently told Seven Days from the road. "It probably sounds weird, but when we first started we had the notion of just wearing our street clothes. Then we realized that both of us are the kind of performers who inherently love to ham it up on stage, and there was already a whole lot of imagery in the music to work with. One night we played with a burlesque troupe, and suddenly there was this visual context for the songs. So we just said, 'Fuck it -- let's do it!'"
Although their music encompasses more than traditional cabaret, it is just as bawdy, playing loose and fast with concepts of gender and sexual preference. To see Dresden Dolls live is to be thoroughly ravished; Palmer pounds at her keyboard, spitting tongue-twisting prose, while Viglione bashes away at his kit with controlled fury. The resulting sound is scatalogical punk rock with the kinds of dramatic pauses and time-shifts more typically associated with classical music. Dresden Dolls can switch from breathy torch songs to stark, animalistic rock with nary a hiccup. Their tunes are like sonic novellas, a deliciously macabre literary trip. These poetic pretensions and intricate song structures make for some of the most interesting and dynamic sounds around.
Viglione, 26, recalls being struck by Palmer's songwriting upon first listen at a Halloween party. "There was so much character and conviction in her playing," he says of his band- mate. "She had such urgency in the way she was performing. You could tell that the girl had to be playing music to remain sane. I related a lot to that on a gut level. Plus I had never heard anyone use the word 'anachronism' in a rock song before."
He's referring to "Girl Anachronism." The tune's kinetic lyrics read like a journal entry by a 19th-century hysteric: "And you can tell from the state of my room that they let me out too soon / and the pills that I ate came a couple years too late," Palmer sings over frenetic piano chords and turbulent rhythms.
"Coin Operated Boy" is about the joys of mechanized self-pleasure. It includes the lines, "If I had a star to wish on for my life / I can't imagine any flesh and blood could be his match / I can even take him in the bath." Live, Palmer is prone to changing the last lyric to, "I can even fuck him in the ass." It's safe to say that neither song is destined for the pop charts.
Regardless of Palmer's commercial viability, Viglione was hooked on her tunes. "I knew she was my real soul sister, separated at birth," he says. "I was so moved, but I tried to keep my cool. I figured she must get approached by musicians all the time. I stopped her in the hallway, and I told her that I played drums, guitar and a little bass. We exchanged numbers. The next day, she got together with another guy she met at that Halloween party; a bass player who also did techno remixes. She came back from that experience sort of like, 'Oh, my God -- no, thanks," and gave me a ring the next day."
The New Hampshire-born Viglione turned out to be a perfect fit. His background in both hardcore and jazz allows for a wide range of rhythmic expression, from the forceful to the fluid. His control reveals he's been at it for a while. "My dad was a drummer, although not professionally, and he sat me down when I was 5 years old and gave me the basics," Viglione says. "But the best thing he did was to turn me on to players that he thought would shape my style -- guys like Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette and Art Blakey. Really great jazzmen. But he also showed me some amazing rock drummers like Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell."
Playing in Dresden Dolls lets Viglione indulge all aspects of his percussive personality. "Amanda writes this powerfully rhythmic, aggressive music, but with an amazing amount of nuance and creativity," he says. "It's just a magical chemistry."
Rock drummers are sometimes ridiculed as being marginally musical and intellectually unsophisticated. Tales of timekeepers who do little more than keep the beat and smash hotel rooms reinforce this stereotype. It's an unfair assumption, however, and it certainly doesn't apply to Viglione. "I'm kind of the crank wheel of the operation," he says of his role in the band. "A lot of what we come up with is borne from our weird senses of humor. It's just the mental spasming that happens when you're hanging out with your best friend."
Although he doesn't write the chord progressions, Viglione is an important part of the band's musical architecture. "I try to shape the music," he explains. "I hear Amanda playing rock songs with all of these interesting quirks, and I try to capitalize on her idiosyncrasies and develop my playing along with them."
The resulting musical lockstep is at the heart of the Dresden Dolls' unique sound. Viglione's drumming doesn't just provide a backbeat, it accentuates the movement of each composition, drawing Palmer's charismatic personality even further into focus.
Their unique blend of genres makes the band stand out among their contemporaries. While singer-songwriter and punk styles are typical fare for twentysomethings, Kurt Weill is a less obvious inspiration. Viglione claims the Dolls arrived at their sound instinctively. "We just asked ourselves, 'What are the main elements that comprise both of us as musicians and performers, and how can we utilize all of them?'" he says. "Rather than stripping away and sculpting a particular thing, we just did what came naturally.
"Amanda loves both German avant-garde and straight-up pop music," Viglione continues. "I came from Black Flag, John Coltrane and Pantera. And, we both love the Rocky Horror Picture Show! You take punk, metal, jazz and pop, with a twist of glam for fun and flamboyance, and that's what you get. Why try to compromise or censor ourselves?"
Dresden Dolls inspire their fans to express themselves as well. "All you kids, and people of all ages -- we get a lot of 40- and 50-year-olds at our shows, too -- this is an all-inclusive thing," Viglione says. "Don't feel that just because you're over 35 that you're not cool enough or young enough to come to a rock show. Or too young, for that matter; we've had kids that are, like, 9 years old say, 'I really want to come see your show, but other kids are teasing me for liking your band.'
"We say, 'Fuck it, and follow our example and dress as you want.' That's the real punk rock attitude."