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Album Reviews: Yes, Virginia... by The Dresden DollsThe Dresden Dolls' self-titled debut album was one of those records that was fascinating at first shine but didn't necessarily inspire you to listen to it again. With their weird mix of post-punk noise, Tori Amos-like piano-goddess incantations, and Kurt Weill-inspired, German cabaret jauntiness, the Dolls were long on quirk but short on substance, a concept band in search of an identity. Well, with Yes, Virginia, they've finally found that identity, and created something very close to a masterpiece.
As produced by Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie (the Pixies, Hole, Radiohead), Yes, Virginia attacks you from the start with a raw-nerve, live-in-the-studio energy that the Dolls' first album only hinted at. Singer-pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione play their instruments as if their lives depended on it, generating more exciting dynamics than most bands can create with half-a-dozen musicians and a host of overdubs. Stripped down to their barest elements -- piano, drums, two voices and very little else -- Palmer and Viglione stand revealed as two musicians of astonishing talent and energy, and they've clearly grown confident enough to do away with most of the fuzzy studio effects and tinkling music boxes of their first album.
As if inspired by this cleaner approach to their arrangements, Palmer's songwriting has become much more accessible and pop-oriented -- even as her lyrics have, if anything, gotten darker and more daring. The very first song, "Sex Changes," is a disturbing little ditty about abortion; other songs tackle everything from alcoholism to masturbation to the evils of mass consumerism. Perhaps the best example of Palmer's new approach to songwriting, at once kinder and nastier, is the song "Backstabber," a scathingly witty attack on a fellow musician who "only sleep[s] with girls who say they like your music." Many a noisy emo band would envy Palmer's ability to turn lyrics like "shit lover! off-brusher! jaded bitter joy crusher!" into such a rousing, singalong chorus.
The Dolls haven't completely abandoned the Berlin-meets-Broadway side to their sound -- "Mandy Goes to Med School" is a jaunty little cabaret number that casts Palmer (a.k.a. "Mandy") and her drummer as a pair of back-alley abortion doctors ("put away those pliers honey, trust me cause I know the options"), while "Your Alcoholic Friends" is a mix of sunshiny piano pop and droll cynicism worthy of Stephen Sondheim -- or maybe Ben Folds. But for the most part, Palmer and Viglione have committed to playing the role of guitarless rock 'n' roll band, and it's a role that suits them perfectly.
So yes, Virginia -- the Dresden Dolls did have a great album in them, and Yes, Virginia is it. For sheer raw energy, great songwriting and bristling, ferocious intelligence, it's hard to imagine any other album this year topping it. - Andy Hermann
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