Dynamic Dualities

Photo by Kelly Davidson

“I’M JUST A DAY OFF,” the Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer says about her autobiographical rant “Girl Anachronism,” a hyperventilating blur of rapid-fire self-recriminations (“You can tell from . . . the dents in my car/and the blisters on my lip/that I’m not the carefullest of girls”) that’s chased up the staircase by Brian Viglione’s sharp drum smacks and her morbidly thunderous piano rumble. “It’s my own private joke,” she explains by phone from her home in Boston. “I was a cesarean. My mother asked the doctor to take me out a day earlier than he’d planned — she had a weird superstition about even numbers and even days. It’s my excuse to the world for constantly being late and not being with it. Like a lot of my songs, it’s really five songs at once. I feel like I was born in the wrong generation or century.”

The manic, breakneck tempo of “Girl Anachronism” directly contrasts with the other tune from the Dolls’ recent Martin Bisi—produced CD that’s getting a lot of local airplay — “Coin-Operated Boy,” an insidiously melodic, comparatively well-behaved piece of unabashed pop that pirouettes jauntily along the balance beam, stopping and starting with showy gestures. This duality of gloom and giddiness derives in part from the pair’s distinct backgrounds. Viglione, 25, used to play in New England hardcore punk and jazz-improv groups before meeting Palmer at a solo recital she gave on Halloween 2000. Palmer was into Brechtian musical theater, had briefly studied mime with Marcel Marceau, and still leads Living Statues, a collective of performance artists who pose motionless in public places. “She gave me validation for what I was trying to do — she’s my perfect complement,” he says. “It was instant magic,” she agrees.

“Brian had experience in bands, whereas I had only been locked up in my room,” says Palmer, 28. “I’m not used to taking other people’s opinions, but Brian listens with such extremity, and his drum reflexes are insane.” “She needs that kind of force to drive her along,” says Viglione. Directly facing each other onstage, the formally attired, white-faced pair engage in precision melodramas, each cymbal clasp and piano flick timed . . . just so . . . the drums building quick frames around the spaces between Palmer’s words. “Amanda’s a very expressive, lyrical player,” says Viglione. “She leaves a lot of room in order to tell a story.”


AT THE DRESDEN DOLLS’ local debut at the Viper Room in June, Viglione came out from behind the drums to pull the acoustic-guitar wires of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam,” with Palmer languidly clipping the lyrics while kneading her keyboards like a marionette jerked by unseen strings. A cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” could have been just a cute idea; instead, Palmer’s percussive left hand summoned malevolent waves of reproachful fury, and Viglione’s superfast fills were literally breathtaking, extracting squeals of astonishment from the crowd.

But it’s Palmer’s originals that leave the deepest impressions, making their own contexts and echoes — like the slow-building album closer, “Truce,” which starts with former lovers dividing their possessions, and even the places they used to go: “You can have London/but I want New York City.” As the momentum builds, Palmer weaves strands of war and romantic heartbreak into a surreal, somberly moving epic. “‘Truce’ works like a dream, where it makes sense in the moment it’s happening,” Palmer explains. “I had just gone through an intense breakup. When you visit the familiar places, you’re a little bit on guard. I was driving along — I get the majority of my ideas when I’m driving — thinking about dividing up all the places you have in common to avoid running into each other, until the hyperbole goes on forever and you divide up the world, like World War II. Then 9/11 happened . . . the politics of 9/11 crept into the song, like the absurd idea that countries can put up a wall and be neatly divided.

“When my car radio broke a few years ago, I let it stay broken,” she says. “With no sonic distractions, my mind tends to wander. I get in a lot of accidents.”

The Dresden Dolls perform at the Troubadour on Wednesday, August 18, and on The Jimmy Kimmel Show on Thursday, August 19.

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