Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: Theatre is Evil

Amanda Palmer may be a classic over-sharer - Twitter logorrhea, a sprawling blog, now a picture-heavy Tumblr site - and a compulsive worker, but she takes her time between albums. Real albums, that is. Between 2008's Who Killed Amanda Palmer and this year's Theatre is Evil, we were treated to a steady stream of output, but each seemed like a joke. We had Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele, Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, the Evelyn Evelyn concept album (with Jason Webley), Nighty Night (with Ben Folds, Neil Gaiman, and Damian Kulash), plus a number of one-off singles. Cover songs on the ukulele, songs about Australia, songs about conjoined twins, and an album recorded in one very long night. Where was the clever songwriter with the careful lyrics who penned three fine Dresden Dolls albums and the brilliant solo album?

Apparently songs come easily to Palmer, but good songs are harder to come by. Let's say I was a little nervous to insert the Theatre is Evil CD into the Difference Engine...


I backed the project on Kickstarter, and I must say that the packaging is terrific. The CD itself is contained what looks like a small bound book. The insides include song lyrics, pictures, and artwork, along with the usual acknowledgement of band members and others. Also included was a "postcard" that opens to reveal a thank you to Kickstarter backers and a pair of opera glasses that provides a 3-D image of the band, with many body parts on display.


After a very strange but mercifully short introduction in German of the band ("Meow Meow Introduces the Grand Theft Orchestra"), we roll into "Smile (PIctures or It Didn't Happen)", a slow-moving, synth-heavy song about… I don't know what. Palmer concludes by singing "I don't wanna go to California/I don't want to die." Fair enough.

Much better is "The Killing Type," a song with clever lyrics and a killer synth bass line in the chorus. "I'm not the killing type/but I would kill to make you feel." The song makes its follow-up, "Do It with a Rockstar", all the more disappointing. Banal lyrics, repeated often, combined with not much in the way of a melody, obscures some nice work on bass and keyboards.

"Want It Back" might be the highlight of the record, opening with a synthesizer introduction that wouldn't be out of place on an ELO record, moving on to a bouncy melody about unrequited love, and an infectious chorus.

"Grown Man Cry" also features some nice synthesizer work. The song sounds as though it could be a mid-80s piece by The Cure such as "Disintegration." The lyrics are about being in a relationship with someone who is emotionally immature, withdrawing from arguments and making a big deal out of small things.

The end of what would have been Side 1 in an earlier era is "Trout Heart Replica," the most Dresden Dolls-sounding piece musically, starting with piano and adding strings. Lyrically, the song seems to be about hurting the ones you love. A powerful song.

After a brief instrumental "Grand Theft Intermission," Side 2 starts with "Lost," and "Bottom Feeder," both of which have interesting musical moments but ultimately seem slight.

"The Bed Song" is solo piano song about how a relationship can go stale and yet the couple continues on together, emotionally distant. "Massachusetts Avenue" is an updated version of the Dolls' "The Jeep Song," about missing a former lover and how specific locations remind her of him. "Melody Dean" is a straight-ahead rock song about loving the one you're with (apparently even if she's a lady). "Berlin" is the big, sprawling finish, clocking in at 7:18, before the coda of "Olly Olly Oxen Free."

As if that wasn't enough music (71+ minutes), the MP3 download that accompanied the Kickstarter package includes three B sides ("Denial Thing," "The Living Room," which are fine songs in their own right, and Ukulele Anthem"), one cover song (Lana Del Rey's "Video Games," better than the original, with only piano and electronic bleeps (and not sung with Del Rey's slurred delivery)), and four older songs ("From St. Kilda to Fitzroy," "Provanity," "Assistant," and "Not Mine"), along with three videos, a PDF of the lyrics and art booklet that comes with the CD, and odds and ends. No one can reasonably complain about the value of the package!


After two listens to the album and one run-through of the extras, it seems to me that this is no Who Killed Amanda Palmer, but it's a worthy contribution to Palmer's growing portfolio of work. Never mind those throwaway bits from the past few years - this is the real thing.

For someone who comes across as anything but subtle, Palmer has made another album filled with subtleties. Unlike WKAP, which I loved on first listening to it, this one grew on me after a second listen. Musically, Palmer said she set out to make a record that reminded her of her favorite 1980s synthesizer-heavy records, and on that front she succeeded wonderfully. Almost any song on the record would not sound out of place on a college radio station in 1986. Lyrically, she continues to mine the same lode that she has in the past: emotionally distant lovers and failed relationships. And that's not a bad thing. While this is no WKAP, it's no Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, either, and that's a very good thing.

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