Who Killed Amanda Palmer?

Amanda Palmer

Roadrunner Records, 2008


REVIEW BY: Jono Russell


Right from the outset of Amanda Palmer's solo debut, it's clear that the final product isn't even remotely close to the original vision for the record. This was supposed to be low-key and stripped down, a chance to record songs not suited for Palmer's punk-cabaret duo, The Dresden Dolls. Given the role of her partner-in-Dolls-crime (drummer Brian Viglione), it would have been a fair enough assumption to expect an album full of piano ballads. The Dolls without the edge, in other words.

But just 20 seconds into the opening track “Astronaut,” those expectations are shattered. Palmer’s yelp makes way for pounding piano and, soon after, drums, fuzzed-out bass, and cello join in. This is merely a taste -- four bars to be exact -- of what is to come, as everything abruptly stops for Palmer's tender (by her standards, anyway) vocal. "Is it enough to have some love, small enough to fit inside a book?" she asks. When the chorus hits, you realize that this is certainly not a low-key affair. Quite the opposite, in fact: the extravagance of it all exceeds anything from the Dolls era, and this is something for which we should be thankful.

As “Astronaut” ends -- empathizing with the wives who lost their partner in the Columbia shuttle disaster -- it's hard not to feel exhausted already. The song builds relentlessly, then it all cuts away for the devastating lines: "You may be acquainted with the night / But I have seen the darkness in the day / And you must know it is a terrifying sight / Because you and I are living the same way."my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Immediately following (after a countdown from a very familiar voice, belonging to producer Ben Folds) is the manic “Runs In The Family,” packed full of strings and percussion. This track, which deals with a fear of heredity illnesses, certainly evokes the Dolls in their prime. Just how Palmer managed to record this breathless vocal without passing out is a miracle in itself.

As exhilarating as these opening two cuts are, the strength of this album comes in the quieter, down tempo moments. “Ampersand” is a vow to remain an individual regardless of relationship status while taking aim at the those suffering from excessive infatuation (“The headstone's all ready / All carved up and pretty / Your sick satisfaction / Those his and hers matching”).

”Strength Through Music” is the emotional climax of the album; it’s a song written in response to the Columbine Massacre and, chillingly, recorded at the same time as history repeated itself at Virginia Tech. Folds and Palmer arrived on the ideal formula for this. It's an incredibly simple arrangement, allowing for the -- excuse the pun -- strength of the music to shine through clearly. When Palmer's voice reaches heights not previously heard to sing, "It's so simple / The way they fall / No cry, no whimper / No sound at all," you're not human if your heart doesn't break.

As with much of the Dolls’ work, this isn't for everyone. St Vincent's Annie Clark joins Palmer for an irony-laden cover of Carousel's “What's The Use Of Wond'rin” and, soon after, Ben Folds provides Beach-Boys-esque backing vocals for an irresistibly catchy pop tune about...rape and abortion. Don't expect this album to be getting airtime on the McCain Straight Talk Express (and Palmer has expressed concern that if McCain wins, the yet-to-be-released video for “Oasis” may get her arrested).

All the production gloss is well and truly stripped away for the home stretch of the record. But for all Folds' production showmanship has helped, it's moments like Palmer lamenting, rather poignantly, "And you're learning that just 'cause they call themselves friends / Doesn't mean they'll call” on “The Point Of It All” that reinforce her supreme ability as a songwriter.

Who Killed Amanda Palmer? is nothing short of a masterpiece. This disc manages to transcend genres from track to track and still seem like doing so is the most natural thing in the world. It simultaneously builds on her past works and signals a new era of creative output. For our sake, let's hope it's a long one.

Rating: A

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© 2008 Jono Russell and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Roadrunner Records, and is used for informational purposes only.