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The Dresden Dolls emerged like a lightning bolt in 2003, fulfilling demand for a rock band merging the gay-popular counter-culture musical genres of cabaret and punk.
Who demanded such a band? Anyone enraptured by the music and lyrics of Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for starters. In fact, after the Boston duo of mad-pianist Amanda Palmer and fervid drummer Brian Viglione released their debut The Dresden Dolls, we hoped they’d take the next natural step and actually compose a musical. The Dolls — named chiefly after the war-ravaged German city once famed for its art and cabaret — make sweeping, overly dramatic pop informed by musical theater and rock. But with pounding piano in place of blaring guitar as principal instrumentation, the Dolls’ music seems a natural progression from Hedwig. And we haven’t even mentioned bisexual Palmer’s hyper-literate lyrics, which scream out for staging.
But five years later, we’re still waiting for a veritable, fully realized Dresden Dolls musical. Not that there haven’t been nods in that direction. After the duo released its second studio set, 2006’s Yes, Virginia,
Palmer co-authored a play featuring the Dolls’ music and staged at a repertory theater in Cambridge, Mass. It ran for two months. A few months before that, a full-length, fan-written musical featuring the Dolls’ music — endorsed by the band — debuted at a community theater in Rhode Island.
Of course, the duo is known for dramatic performances — often wearing burlesque-style costumes and white face paint, and often including others as part of the show, including painters, stilt-walkers and living statutes. But that’s not the same as a musical incorporating everyone and every song into telling a story from beginning to end.
Now, the duo has tossed off a third studio album, one made up of a few new songs but even more B-sides, early recordings and outtakes from the Yes, Virginia sessions, and bestowed a title that’s the inverse of the last. How pedestrian. Except, surprise: No, Virginia turns out to be lighter and brighter than the first two albums, and the duo’s most accessible and best set yet.
The groundwork for a musical is all here — about a disjointed cast of disaffected, downtrodden characters, including a revenge-seeking gardener, a sadistic organist, bored kids in a small town and those who impudently seek answers to life’s riddles that many people just blindly accept. Paired with songs on Yes, Virginia — whose title stems from the famous 1897 newspaper advice column affirming a girl’s query as to whether Santa Claus exists — this could make for a powerful musical about the search for meaning and belonging in a confusing, confining world. At the least, these 11 songs will entertain and amuse you, from Palmer campily snarling her way through a jaunty cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ ”Pretty in Pink,” to the quiet storm of low expectations in ”Gardener,” to the seven-minute, longing ode to place that is album closer ”Boston.”
Palmer told Billboard the set is ”my spring-cleaning record,” slapped together so when they go back into the studio next year, they start completely fresh. With the slate clean, perhaps it’s not too unrealistic to think they might finally tackle creating that long-awaited musical. Until then, to appropriate an originally sinister line from ”Gardener”: This is as good as it will get.
If Dresden Dolls conjure thoughts of Hedwig, Heloise & the Savior Faire put you in mind of the Scissor Sisters, or other punk-steeped American bands that have found success in the United Kingdom, like The Gossip. And even more, Blondie. Blondie’s Debbie Harry actually guests on the group’s Trash, Rats and Microphones, released on actor Elijah Wood’s own label. Harry gets coquettish on album standouts ”Downtown” and ”Canadian Changs.”
Through her lyrics, Heloise Williams displays a knowing sense of humor about modern-day life and love. She sings about polyamorous women, about sex in cars, about getting drunk, about dancing. ”You’re feeling hot tonight, you’re feeling hot tonight; ’cause your body looks so good, you should be dancing all night,” she sings ecstatically on album opener ”Illusions.” Even if they didn’t have a song questioning how one gets into ”Disco Heaven,” they’d have gay appeal to spare. And not just because the band includes two dancers, or because they love to perform with pageantry — and Williams, like Harry or the Sisters’ Ana Matronic, has a dominating presence like a drag queen. The flashy music goes a long way — a total throwback, through and through, to late-70’s dance punk and early 80’s synth pop, with cultural references including Members Only jackets, Datsun and ”Pour Some Sugar On Me.”
The band gets a bit too carried away with being hip and cool, and their music is not only predictable and familiar, their songs are all fashioned from the same polyester cloth. There’s only so much you can do with it before it all starts to look the same. But as gaudy as you may think it, you’ll still turn to it at critical moments, when you want to have fun.