Friday, February 4, 2011

Amanda Palmer and the Self-Censoring Filter

One important skill in any line of work is the ability to known when to self-censor. No one has wonderful ideas every time out. Sometimes the ideas are okay but the execution is off. It happens. Everyone has bad days.

But I'm coming to the conclusion that Amanda Palmer lacks that all-important filter. This isn't a complete surprise to anyone who has seen her Twitter stream and blog, both of which seem to revel in going one step too far and providing more information than any fan really needs. Still, it's one thing to be open and (over-)sharing in between releases and quite another to send random ideas off to the ether as an album. Unfortunately, that seems to be the trend.

The three albums Palmer did with Brian Viglione as the Dresden Dolls were all terrific, combining Palmer's on-the-edge piano with Viglione's amazing drumming and Palmer's well-considered (if often raunchy) lyrics made the records mainstays in my rotation. Palmer followed that up with Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, produced by Ben Folds, and one of the best albums I've heard in the last decade. From the opening emotional and musical wallop of "Astronaut," to the frenetic "Runs in the Family," to the cry of independence in "Ampersand," the album showcases sharp lyrics with some of Palmer's best piano work. Although not every song on the record is a musical home run, highlights abound, including the downtempo "Blake Says" and "Have to Drive," the slashing "Guitar Hero," and the anthemic closer, "Another Year." How would she follow up her masterpiece?

After a long pause, the answer turned out to be the quirky Evelyn Evelyn, a concept record with Jason Webley that told the story of the conjoined twins of the title, a half hour melodrama of accidents, murder, child abuse, prostitution, the cruelty and the kindness of strangers, and the redeeming power of music. Not every track worked, and about half the record consisted of the twins' narration of their life story, but the project was nothing if not ambitious, and the record closed with a beautiful cover version of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (on the ukelele, of all things). If Who Killed Amanda Palmer? was a 10, Evelyn Evelyn was perhaps a 6, with additional points for ambition. Fair enough, not every project can be a huge success.

But then... Palmer seems to have latched on to the ukelele as a portable, easy-to-learn instrument that she could take to impromptu "ninja gigs" and fake her way through cover songs and try out new material on her most loyal fans without the baggage that setting up a keyboard requires. Of course, there's a reason that the ukelele is not the instrument of choice for teenaged boys. We understand why the video game isn't called "Ukelele Hero." The instrument is best confined to Hawaii and luaus for tourists. So, naturally, Palmer's next project? An album of Radiohead covers - on the ukelele. I groaned when I heard about it. The reality of the record is that it's not horrible, but that's not really the standard to which an artist wants to aspire. It was cheap (a minimum of 69 cents, which covered Radiohead's royalties, with additional donations going to Palmer), but the trend wasn't good.

That brings us to her third release in under a year, cheekily called Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under (the songs are nearly all Antipodean-themed), timed to coincide with her tour of Australia and New Zealand. After an over-the-top introduction, we have a live version of "Makin' Whoopie." Seems like a curious beginning. "Australia" is a catchy love song to the country, except that it's mainly about Palmer herself, including her PMS. Next comes a novelty song about her dislike of vegemite. "Map of Tasmania" is the centerpiece of the album, and it is truly an awful song. The music is a Caribbean-flavored dance beat. Palmer starts off with a sampled and repeated "Oh my God" before breaking into a faux-Jamaican accent to sing about...public hair. Oh my God indeed. "New Zealand" was, as Palmer explains to the crowd, hastily written to give the Kiwis their own song. She leads the audience in a verse of "The Vegemite Song." In fact, the best songs on the album are covers, including a lovely version of Nick Cave's "The Ship Song."

Palmer seems indefatigable, so I can't accuse her of laziness. Yet thrown-together albums, Jar-Jar BInks imitations, laughing her way through songs tossed together backstage strikes me as either laziness or indifference toward her music. I hold out hope that she is carefully penning new songs with clever lyrics, catchy melodies, and solid arrangements. Time will tell, but recent history doesn't fill me with hope.

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