1) They're a duo. Oh, Lord, spare us from another two-person onslaught. It was cute when the White Stripes had their pseudo-incestuous flirting a few years ago, but since then, the market for stripped-down bands has petered out. To make matters worse, the Dresden Dolls fall into the same sexually ambiguous valley where the White Stripes live. In press photos and in concert, pianist and vocalist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione cuddle and kiss, yet Palmer denies that they're a couple. "We're not [together]," confesses Palmer, "but a lot of people think we are. We're just very intimate friends." How's that for coy?
But the Dolls beat the duo curse for one simple reason: Palmer's piano. While other two-member bands rely on the more common guitar/drums or guitar/ bass combo, the piano has no problem carrying the weight of two or three instruments. Add in Viglione's expressive drumming, and you won't miss a thing.
2) They hurt. In the world of music, whine whine whine can come off as wank wank wank. Sure, "Everybody Hurts," but do we have to sit around and talk about it all the time? Plus, it's easy to get people on your side if all you do is wallow in self-pity, as everyone from Morrissey to Dashboard Confessional have learned. With songs about breakups, molestation and self-cutting filling out the Dresden Dolls' self-titled debut, a person with reasonable brain chemistry might want to steer clear of the duo.
Don't. Sure, you won't be inviting the group to play at your wedding, but the Dolls are a lot more fun to listen to than their material suggests. Take their foray into that most difficult of song genres: the breakup song. While sap and pathos usually drip from these by-the-numbers tunes, the Dolls' "The Jeep Song" is a masterpiece of the craft. In the song Palmer recounts seeing her ex's black Jeep replicated all over the city: "I guess it's just my stupid luck/that all of Boston drives the same black fucking truck." It relies on Palmer's incisive eye, the way she plucks out one telling detail from a breakup's aftermath and crafts a universal statement. It makes sadness fun!
3) They wear face paint. Kiss. Gwar. Slipknot. Christina Aguilera. Artists who wear more than their fair share of makeup onstage tend to be compensating for something that's missing, and that thing is usually talent. If you can con the audience into buying into your "look," they might not notice that you're playing the same crappy song over and over again.
But there is nothing hollow behind the Dolls' façade. While they definitely have a "look" (on the crowded streets of Austin's South by Southwest festival, I once picked them out of the crowd from a block away), the Dolls aren't acting. "People call us a theatrical band," says Palmer. "But even the personal songs are delivered with an intensity that may come off as theatrical. It's not like Brian and I are getting onstage and playing characters."
Which, of course, sets them apart from Gwar and Slipknot. While their stage act wouldn't be the same if the Dolls wore button-up shirts and khakis, there's a lot of personal feeling in their music. Which leads us to potential problem number four.
4) They've got a woman on piano. Talk about a minefield of a genre! The only thing worse may be a non-bluesman with a harmonica. From the histrionics of Tori Amos to the banal pleasantries of Norah Jones, women tickling the ivories usually leads to men running for the hills.
But Palmer's potent blend of sexuality, anger and other forms of passion never gives over to the solipsism that seems to reign over folks once they master the piano.
5) They mix unmixable genres. You don't need a gene splicer to put together breeds of music that ought to never mate. And the results usually look like cloning's bad days. Mix hippie vibes and rap, and you get P.M. Dawn. Mix country and techno and you get the Rednex. These guys make Frankenstein look well put-together.
But like Oliver, the legendary humanzee, the Dresden Dolls are made up of incompatible parts that somehow work together. The description "cabaret-Goth-punk" makes a sane person want to plug his ears. It works because they don't force things together. Instead the music sounds organic, with different influences mingling together peacefully. It's hard to say where the riot grrl ends and the cabaret queen begins.
6) They're "Gothic." Nowadays, when Goth kids are listening to Marilyn Manson and his musical progeny, dark clothes and darker attitudes might seem like something that belongs to people still surprised by armpit hair. The trappings of a once-fun style are now the window dressing of teenage angst. No thanks.
But as much as you can apply the mostly meaningless label of "Goth" to the Dresden Dolls, they at least understand the most important element of dark fascination: sex. It used to be freaking hot to wear black lipstick and strap on some bondage gear. And the storm that is a Dresden Dolls show roils with sexual tension. Palmer rocks on her bench and pleads and yells, while Viglione pounds out a rhythm in perfect time. It's not Goth, but the creepy-yet-libidinous German cabaret from whence the Dolls draw their dark power. Weimar-era Germans understood how closely sex and death were connected. And that makes all the postures and makeup and anger of the Dresden Dolls damn sexy.