Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Dresden Dolls

Yes, yes, it's taken longer than I expected to write this one up. Basically, I finally caved in and bought an iPod this week, and I've spent the last couple of days... well, whacking my laptop with a stick and yelling "Why doesn't the fucking USB 2.0 card work?" before giving up, phoning the people who sold me the USB 2.0 card, getting a suspiciously automatic "Oh, you should re-instal Windows" answer, ignoring it, buying a Firewire connection (and the 4-pin converter), wrestling with Apple's registration form (which I suspect is another of those bloody sites that doesn't like apostrophes in names) and beginning the painfully laborious procedure of copying over my CD collection. This is going to take time, because I bought a stupidly high-capacity iPod and have tons of CDs to put on it.

As I type this, it's happily sitting in the corner playing a random selection from 30 CDs, all of them with artists whose names start with A or B. And there's most of B still to go - I've only reached Blur. This is going to take ages, but it'll be worth it in the end. It's terrifying how many album tracks, even from that selection, I either haven't heard in years, or genuinely don't recall ever having heard before. (Incidentally, I'm impressed that iMusic's database recognised "Sugar Candy Kisses", a Bjork bootleg from 1993. Something tells me nothing in my collection is going to be obscure enough to defeat it, but we shall see.)

Anyway, the Dresden Dolls.

Or rather, singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, since drummer Brian Viglione decided to give the UK tour a miss at the last moment, cancelling their planned festival sets, and leaving Amanda Palmer to play the Scottish gigs as a solo act. To be fair, according to their website, they seem to have been on permanent tour since January, so you can understand him being a bit burned out. Shame he didn't come, though, since the Edinburgh Fringe is pretty much an ideal place for the Dresden Dolls.

For those who don't know them, the Dresden Dolls are a piano/drums duo who describe themselves as Brechtian punk cabaret. I'm not sure where they're getting the punk bit from (although Americans do tend to see it more as an attitude than a genre, from what I can tell), but the rest is pretty much accurate. They're an unrepentantly theatrical band, who turn up in doll make-up and perform epic storytelling songs that seem to have diverged from their contemporaries decades ago and struck off in a completely different direction starting with Kurt Weill. Without losing sight of the fact that all of this is, first and foremost, supposed to be entertaining. I just thought I'd throw that in, because I realise the whole thing sounds like it could be a terrifyingly pretentious art school project, and it's important to make the point that it isn't.

Being a very theatrical act by nature, the Dresden Dolls are right at home in the Edinburgh Festival, which is filled with people just like them. This is particularly good news for Amanda Palmer, who turned up intending to play a solo act, only to get booked for a warm-up show headlining Edinburgh's Vaudeville Club, and recruit a bunch of the club's regulars to join the show. The Vaudeville Club is the sort of loveably marginal venue that's ideal for this sort of semi-secret show, and not surprisingly, it was packed with Dresden Dolls fans. Rather than just running through a cut-down version of the next night's set, Amanda brought in Regina Spektor for a couple of songs, duetted with the MC, did a new song by a local songwriter she met the previous day, and brought in a tap dancer and a trumpeter for "Coin Operated Boy." Anyone who can sling together a show that good at the last minute is doing something right. It's stumbling into this sort of thing that makes the Fringe worthwhile.

They repeated some of this material for the main show at the Exchange the next night. The Exchange is a decent enough small-to-medium music venue, but I tend to think there's something about Amanda Palmer's songs that works better in a smaller room. But for someone who's only released one studio album, and who'd only played solo in her home town before now, she has no problem filling a ninety minute set. There's a new album of material just about to be recorded, making this a very good time to see the band live, and the usual offbeat choices of cover version. Anyone can decide that they're coming to Scotland and should do a Scottish song; but you have to be slightly twisted to decide that the song in question should be "I Want You But I Don't Need You" by Momus, practically a Gilbert & Sullivan number.

Yes, the "Brechtian punk cabaret" thing sounds hideously pretentious, but only because you're imagining the sort of people who would normally do such a thing. The Dresden Dolls are much better than that. They're doing it right.