This exhilarating album is the first solo offering from Amanda Palmer, one of half of Bostonian ‘cabaret punk’ outfit the Dresden Dolls. It is a rather delicious confection; a cake iced with the darkest, bitterest chocolate.
Superficially at least, it’s a softer sound – less full on, more mellow, with Ben Folds‘ sure hand on production duties much in evidence and Palmer’s considerable song writing skills pushed to the fore.
Opening with a dramatic pounding on the piano and a gasp of breath (on the wonderfully angular Astronaut), the album is full of vignettes, painted red and black, and shot through with equal amounts of humour and pathos. The overall sound combines a dash of Tori Amos and a splash of Regina Spektor with a (small) helping of Rufus Wainwright.
The album is thematically incredibly rich. The rapid-paced Runs In The Family, one of the more overtly Dolls-like offerings, has the insistent quality of Girl Anachronism and looks at hereditary illness, the fear of madness chasing you in your blood. Guitar Hero, meanwhile, is about video games (“It’s so depressing when people die in real life.”) while Oasis is a deceptively perky, tragic-comic narrative about date rape, abortion (“I brought along my best friend, who had once been molested”) and the Gallagher brothers.
Annie Clark (aka St Vincent) takes on the main vocal duties for a version of the old Carousel standard What’s The Use of Wond’rin? and Ampersand (“I’m not going to die for you, you know I’m not no Juliet”), already a popular live track, is a delicate, swelling, piano-led thing. Throughout Palmer’s voice has the bruised smokiness of someone like PJ Harvey, switching from clipped theatricality to raw punkiness, from whisper to scream, when needed. But whatever tone she adopts there is always an emotional reality at the heart of it, a handle to hold on to.
The album started out as a small personal project, intended as just a collection of tracks for voice and piano, but blossomed into something much bigger over time. The finished product features not just Folds’ input but cameos from Rasputina‘s Zoe Keating (on cello) and East Bay Ray of The Dead Kennedys.
In fact it could have benefited from a little less production gloss, as it is the simpler tracks – Ampersand and Another Year particularly- that have the greatest impact, the greatest aural appeal, while the more fast-paced songs, though not a dud among them, don’t feel all that dissimilar from her Dresden Dolls work. Not that that’s a bad thing. Far from it.
My favourite line so far, comes from the comparatively upbeat Leeds United: “Who needs love when there’s Law And Order?”, but that may well change with further listens as there are similar lyrical gems in every song. The album’s not for everyone, but if her sound is to your taste, then it will prove a rewarding, delectable, necessary thing: one of this year’s most consistently interesting albums.