On the tenth anniversary of the fateful Halloween party in Boston where Amanda Palmer met Brian Viglione, The Dresden Dolls reunited after a two-year hiatus for a sold out show at Irving Plaza. The significance of their first meeting ten years ago was clearer than ever: these two belong together.
Having seen them perform one of their last pre-breakup shows in 2008 and having seen them play separately since (Amanda at the Spiegeltent in NYC in ’08 and Brian with World/Inferno at Hallowmas that same year), and seeing them now together again, I can say with certainty that each are strong musicians and great performers but that something indefinable happens when they take the stage together. Their musical chemistry is electric; the crowd feeds off it, gives it back; the Dolls bounce it right back to the crowd. And what happens is bigger than two people onstage, bigger even than a jam-packed venue of loving fans. For lack of a better word, it’s magic.
As with so many bands whose live show is superior to their (already great) records, you have to see the Dolls perform to fully appreciate what all the fuss is about. Take my word for it. There’s something genius in the simplicity of two percussionists (the piano is a percussion instrument, after all) playing off of each other’s musical cues and body language in a sort of rhythmic dialogue. Brian and Amanda are like twins who anticipate what the other is going to say. And they’re even more in sync now than they were two years ago — it seems the break has left them supercharged.
The Legendary Pink Dots, who Amanda has always cited as her favorite band and number one musical influence, kicked off the show. After their set, a giant screen hid the stage and showed a Halloween-themed movie clip montage while an equally appropriate soundtrack played over the P.A. When “Sweet Transvestite” came on, the audience sang along, complete with Rocky Horror inside-joke callouts (“Say it!!”). It foreshadowed the singing to come.
Girl: I wonder if a lot of Rocky Horror fans are Dolls fans?
Guy: I’m pretty sure there’s some overlap.
When the Dolls appeared, the house erupted. Brian appeared sans Halloween costume (but later revived the Dolls’ trademark bowler hat); Amanda wore something resembling a caped Checkpoint Charlie uniform, the jacket of which was of course eventually ditched in favor of a black lace bra. The duo kissed, the message obvious to those who knew the high tension that split up the band two years ago.
They opened with “Sex Changes” and played for — are you ready for this? — two hours and thirty-five minutes, almost non-stop. The crowd knew every. single. word. of the set, comprising twenty-one songs (by my count), that included five covers:
– “Pirate Jenny” – by Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill (fromThe Threepenny Opera) – Amanda sang it in English
– “Pierre” – by Carole King – with Brian doing the “I don’t care”s
– “Double Rainbow” – from the YouTube phenomenon; it ended with a rainbow of balloons falling from the ceiling
– “Mein Herr” – from Cabaret – with Brian on acoustic guitar and Amanda, in a gold sequined bra, writhing on a platform, stage-right
– “War Pigs” – by Black Sabbath – and it sounded massive with Amanda on piano and Brian’s metal-influenced drumming at its best
They hit all the big Dolls tunes, most of them from the self-titled album and from Yes, Virginia, and they touched on “Glass Slipper” from A is for Accident and two from No, Virginia (“Ultima Esperanza”, “The Kill”). They kept up the theatrics that make watching them so much fun: Brian clowned as the perfect foil for Amanda’s slightly straighter-(wo)man (we use that word “straight” very loosely here). They recruited fans from the audience to sing backup on “The Jeep Song”. They paid tribute to their mutual friend Sean, who was in the audience and who brought Brian to Amanda’s Halloween party ten years ago. (The audience sent up cries of “Thank you, Sean!” to him on the balcony.) They received “boo”s when Amanda mentioned wrapping up the show. (“Don’t be idiotic,” she said. “We’re obviously going to do an encore.”)
And they played a five-song encore.
Only then was the audience reluctantly willing to let them go — and only because we know that, this time, it won’t be two years before we see them together again.
Two years ago, I wrote a two-part blog post for the Houston Press about “Ten Gruesomely Good Halloween Songs” (read Part 1 and Part 2 at Rocks Off). That’s still one of the most fun things I’ve ever written — fun for me, anyway. So in the spirit of the season, I’m revisiting the idea of a Halloween mix. Here are ten treats to accompany your tricks in 2010.
1. Alice Cooper – Welcome to My Nightmare
What would Halloween be without a little Alice? Ever the good-natured ghoul, Mr. Cooper welcomes us to his nightmare with some help from the Muppets.
2. Outkast – Dracula’s Wedding
This song is about the scariness of actually getting what you want. Healthy adult relationships are pretty terrifying, aren’t they?
3. Lou Reed – Halloween Parade
To appreciate this one, you have to know two things: 1) that the annual NYC Halloween Parade is a huge event that takes place in Greenwich Village, historically the heart of the city’s LGBT community, and 2) that this song was written in 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis.
4. Rob Zombie – Superbeast
You can hear the NIN influence from co-songwriter Charlie Clouser in this song, which is kind of a great pop song in its own right. The pre-chorus refrain of “The ragged they come, and the ragged they kill” is super catchy, syncopated against the beat. And for some reason, I really want to choreograph a high school drill team field routine to this song, with high kicks and everything. Don’t ask me why. I guess it would be for the shock value. I’d love to see it at the homecoming game. Probably because I hated high school.
5. Jayce Everett – Bad Things
Even though True Blood has progressed through its three seasons from a sexy Southern Gothic fantasy to a ridiculous soap opera bloodbath, the song from the opening credits remains relatively undead.
6. The Dresden Dolls – Mandy Goes to Med School
Forget about the pregnant women hammering each others’ stomachs with mallets (and please ignore the random George Michael interlude); this video is all about the jam. Amanda and Brian play off of each other so well, it’s as if they’ve got musical telepathy.
7. Michael Jackson – Blood on the Dance Floor
Bet you thought this was gonna be “Thriller”, right? Nope.
8. The Sword – Tres Brujas
From The Sword’s new album, Warp Riders. The record is more space-aged than spooky, but this song (which means “Three Witches”) adds some necessary mischief to this potion of a playlist we’re concocting.
9. Spinnerette – The Walking Dead
Brody: call me.
10. Ozzy Osbourne – Mr. Crowley
Who better than the Prince of Darkness to finish up this mix? For a really good scare and more info on the true story behind this song, watch this 30-minute online BBC documentary about Aleister Crowley. And for the love of God, DON’T GO IN THAT HOUSE!
As I write this, the Texas trio Girl in a Coma are playing the Music Hall of Williamsburg. But, when I spoke to bassist Jenn Alva yesterday, the band was still on the road and had recently been pulled over by a border patrolman about twelve miles outside of Mobile, Alabama. “He said that he had stopped us because we had a lot of luggage and Texas plates,” Alva says. If only the patrolman could see them now at their sold out show in Brooklyn…
Besides staying busy with their current tour (which includes opening for The Dresden Dolls in Texas in November), GIAC will release on October 19 their third album, Adventures in Coverland, a collection of—you guessed it—cover songs. (Lest you think the band is taking a breather from songwriting, know that guitarist Nina Diaz has already written about twenty new songs for another studio album, planned for release in spring 2011.) Alva explains that, with the exception of one new song and an acoustic version of a track off their previous record, Coverland is a tribute to artists whose music has influenced GIAC.
OH: How did you choose the cover songs for the new album?
JA: Each of us made a list of about ten to fifteen songs by different artists that we wanted to cover, and Nina looked at all of them. [The selection process] was about if we could do it, if we could pull it off. Because we’re not just dealing with fans of our band. If you do a cover, you’re dealing with fans of The Beatles and Patsy Cline. So, we really had to make sure that we were able to pull it off. We’re happy with our choices.
How did you incorporate your own style into the songs so that they sound different from the original versions?
You want to put your own touch on it. You want it to be a Girl in a Coma song, almost. It started with Nina rearranging the song, and then Phanie and I came in. Some of those original bass lines I didn’t even pay much attention to. I wanted to kind of rewrite the bass line so that it would be kind of like a new song altogether. For example, the Selena song—that’s a completely new bass line. Patsy Cline—that’s a new bass line. And then some of them, you don’t want to drift off too far with changing it, especially doing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” because it’s already so great—not that the other songs are not or that they needed changing. It’s just one of those things with the Beatles.
Of the artists the band chose to cover, which ones had the most influence on you personally?
I love Patsy Cline. I love all oldies and rockabilly. So, Patsy Cline, Ritchie Valens—those were a pleasure to do.
It was at SXSW. He’s good friends with our buddy David Garza, and David was talking about us. [Robert] wanted to come check us out; he did, and he really liked our music. He did some filming during SXSW and kind of threw it together and asked, “Hey, do you want this? I put it to ‘As the World Falls Down’,” and of course we said “Yes!” There was a lot of common ground, with being from San Antonio and all.
It seems that the success of GIAC has drawn some attention to San Antonio and to the music scene there. Would you agree?
I hope so. This is another reason that keeps us going. You want to put your city on the map. You want it to be known that there’s great art, great music, and great people. We’re very proud of San Antonio.
Want to catch GIAC live? Check out their upcoming shows on their facebook page.
BEST. NEWS. EVER. The Dresden Dolls reunite on Halloween for 10th anniversary concert at Irving Plaza. MUST. GO.
Ok, Paste. You got 50 slots to fill with what you thought were the best albums from 2000-2009. I wrote a top 10 list, so there were some great albums that just barely missed the cut–and they didn’t make your list, either, Paste. I mean, with 40 more slots to fill than I had, you could have at least included the following.
21. Gorillaz — Gorillaz (2001)
20. The Dresden Dolls — Yes, Virginia (2006)
19. Belle and Sebastian — The Life Pursuit (2006)
18. The Black Keys — Attack and Release (2008)
17. Stereolab — Chemical Chords (2008)
16. Muse — Absolution (2003, U.K./2004, U.S.)
15. The Raveonettes — Lust Lust Lust (2007, U.K./2008, U.S.)
14. Rufus Wainwright — Want One (2003) [made the Paste list]
13. The White Stripes — Get Behind Me Satan (2005)
12. Regina Spektor — Begin to Hope (2006)
11. Loretta Lynn — Van Lear Rose (2004) [made the Paste list]
Much is often said about guitarists, drummers, singers–about who the “greatest of all time” is or was, about who the “greatest” of the moment might be. But pianists are frequently overlooked, perhaps in part because there aren’t many truly excellent ones in popular music. It’s arguably easier and definitely less painful to pick out a melody on a piano than it is to master even the most basic chords on a guitar. Anyone who has strained to reach an F major chord on a guitar can appreciate the simplicity of the same chord on the piano. And anyone who has spent any amount of time at a piano can admire the dexterity involved in crafting a terrific solo, unexpected chord progression, signature style, etc., on the piano.
OH thinks it’s important to recognize the most skilled piano-playing artists of the moment. So here they are. This is not a list of all-time greats; it’s the movers and shakers of the present. Or, as Jerry Lee Lewis might say, the shake-rattle-and-rollers.
10. Trent Reznor
Surprised? Although Reznor is best known for grinding, distorted industrial rock and pissed off lyrics, he started out as a pianist. A prodigiously good one, so the story goes. For the most part, the world has yet to hear first hand these impressive piano skills that Reznor is rumored to have. Sure, he’ll tease us with a little keyboard melody here (Ghosts I, track 1), a handful of chords there (“March of the Pigs”), but we’ll have to keep waiting for the day when he unveils his more advanced abilities.
9. Alicia Keys
Classically trained (at least until she graduated high school at 16), Alicia Keys has an undeniably unique style of songwriting. Her songs mix blues with pop and hip-hop sensibilities, a combo that made her a chart-topping artist at age 20. Oh–and she sings well, too. Each of Keys’s tunes, if a bit repetitive in an R&B loop kind of way, reveal a soulfulness that has always sounded wise beyond the youthful years of their composer. (Embedding of this song was disabled. Otherwise, it would be posted here.)
8. Patrick Wolf
Precocious, a bit egotistical, and incredibly prolific, 26-year-old Wolf has released four albums in the past six years and has a fifth one slated for 2010. Stylistically, he’s all over the map; you could probably describe his songs in terms of music from just about any other era and not be too far off the mark. Roxy Music, Bowie, and even The Killers seem present and accounted for. If hearing The Killers in Wolf’s music implies he’s as heavily influenced as they are by better and more important bands of that past, so be it. At least Wolf is a better keyboardist than Brandon Flowers.
(For Patrick at the piano, go here. For cooler stuff, see below.)
7. Amanda Palmer
AFP (that’s “Amanda Fucking Palmer,” as she refers to herself) is nothing if not original. She has developed to perfection her trademark Kurt Weill-meets-Black Flag-meets-The Smiths aesthetic, turning her artistic identity into a sort of indie brand with an undyingly devoted cult following. As a musician, Palmer has progressed since The Dresden Dolls debuted in 2001 and continues to find odd ways of putting chords in succession while still somehow making musical sense. It’s unfortunate that she and drummer Brian Viglione have disbanded the Dolls: separately, they are interesting; together–live–they are extraordinary.
6. Matt Bellamy
He sings in a dramatic falsetto. He rips on the guitar. He composes orchestral arrangements on the recent The Resistance. He sings in a dramatic falsetto with a guitar slung over his shoulder while playing the piano in an orchestrally arranged song–live. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Matt Bellamy of Muse. Enough said.
5. Casey Dienel
At 24 years old, Dienel is the youngest musician on this list. After studying classical vocals and classical composition at the New England Conservatory of Music, Dienel dropped out–but her music hasn’t suffered for it. She released a solo album in 2006 and subsequently formed a band, White Hinterland, whose 2008 debut was grossly overlooked and under-reviewed. On Phylactory Factory, Dienel flirts in her high-pitched, girly voice with jazz piano riffs and deceptively light-hearted lyrics. Deceptive because this is seriously well-crafted music by a relative newcomer who clearly knows what she is doing. (Fun fact: White Hinterland released a more experimental EP, Lumiculaire, later in 2008. The lyrics are mostly in French. And it’s one of the best stoner albums of the year. Don’t quote me on that.)
4. Tori Amos
Ok, I’ll be honest: I’m writing this from the point of view of someone who doesn’t listen much to Tori Amos but who respects her songwriting abilities, based mostly on hearsay and limited personal encounters. (Personal encounters with the music, that is. Not with Amos herself. For instance, I think “Spark” is a badass song. And Amos saw the beauty in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before a lot of other people did.) I’ve heard concert accounts of her playing more than one piano simultaneously. I can’t deny that she’s a pianist force to be reckoned with, even if her lyrics are a bit overly serious for my tastes.
3. Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor’s music is quirky, anti-folk, unpretentious catchiness. And then she throws in something serious (like “Laughing With” from Far or a fantastic cover of Lennon’s “Real Love”) and punches you right in the gut. Her lyrics are playful and mysterious, creating Edward Gorey-like worlds with recurring themes. (The name “Mary Ann,” literary allusions, and multiple languages continually appear). See her live, and hear a rare phenomenon: a singer who sounds better in person than on a recording. And, as a pianist, she’s capable of more than her simple arrangements allow us to hear–she began playing the piano as a child and eventually studied at the Manhattan School of Music. Perhaps someday she’ll throw a little Rachmaninoff into her concert repertoire.
2. Rufus Wainwright
As if it’s not enough that he’s of a fine musical pedigree (son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle), as though it’s not enough that most of his songs are glistening gems of lyrical and instrumental (and, yes, sometimes excessively theatrical) artisanship, Rufus Wainwright has now written an opera. In 2008, the Metropolitan Opera allegedly revoked Wainwright’s commission when the artist insisted on writing the libretto of Prima Donna in French instead of English. The Palace Theater of Manchester debuted the opera in July 2009. Prima Donna received mixed reviews at the Manchester International Festival, but nevertheless, OH is looking forward to seeing Rufus perform selections from the work at the New York City Opera on Thursday.
1. Ben Folds
His dork-rock style has lost some of its novelty, and his most recent solo album Way to Normal (and the fake pre-release version) and tour were disasters. But, you have only to listen to Ben Folds Five’s debut album from 1995 to understand why Folds tops this list. In a word: showmanship. Folds’s jazz/rock skillz are par excellence, but they’re also some of the most abusive in the biz. Fists, elbows, and feet are all fair game when it comes to body parts with which he’s willing to beat the piano. Folds is at his best best by himself or with a small band; the number of musicians and goofy visual distractions onstage made his last tour a ridiculous pseudo-hippie/college-pop hybrid. Strip away this camp and newfound psychedelia, and what you have is still the most impressive, improvisationally free pianist in rock right now.