Who Killed Amanda Palmer?
Roadrunner Records, 2008
REVIEW BY: Jono Russell
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/10/2008
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
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.
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.