When asked, most bands are uncomfortable explaining their music. That the Dresden Dolls' answer can clock in at nearly five minutes is just one more reason this boy-girl duo is unlike anything else out there.
"It's almost like twisted musical theater," drummer Brian Viglione said. "It's got the absolute drive and the balls of the hardest punk music you could ever see. It's just raw emotion and clever lyrics, with characters and stories and all kinds of great twists and turns, really interesting phrasing and bizarre chord changes, and lots of different melodies countering what is going on."
Rather than relay that mouthful of a description every time, Viglione and singer/pianist Amanda Palmer — who perform wearing a bowler hat and three-piece suit (Viglione) and black, Victorian lingerie (Palmer), both with their faces powdered white — have a simpler response: punk cabaret or, if you prefer a more scholarly take, Brechtian punk cabaret.
"Cabaret is more of a spirit than a style," Palmer said, "especially harkening back to what was happening in the '20s, '30s and '40s. Especially in Weimar [Republic-era] Germany, with [composer] Kurt Weil and [poet/lyricist] Bertold Brecht, who are both huge influences of ours. There was just this spirit that the cabaret was this place to experiment, make commentary and sing satirical, ironic songs. You could play with sexuality and get rowdy."
Weil and Brecht's cabaret theater used then-modern sounds, like jazz and bebop, to craft imaginative ballads that reflected their opinions on society, from gripes over prohibition to protesting Nazism in Germany. While songs from The Dresden Dolls, released in April, don't touch on such weighty topics, there's a lot more to the songs than what's immediately apparent at the surface.
"Coin-Operated Boy" is a hysterical romp about how a wind-up, mechanical boyfriend would be the answer Palmer's prayers, while also commenting on the dynamics, expectations and pressures of a modern relationship. "Missed Me" twists a children's taunt into a psychotic tale of obsession with a toxic target. And "Girl Anachronism," the video for which finds the dramatic Palmer wearing outfits ranging from an elaborate Marie Antoinette get-up to a simple black bra, offers a reason for her awkwardness: She was born at the wrong time.
Viglione was playing in a hardcore-punk band in Arlington, Massachusetts, when he saw Palmer hammering away on a piano in 2000, at, of all things, a Halloween party. The couple jammed together and their chemistry struck them immediately.
Their distinctive look, reminiscent of two Gothic mimes, developed a few months later, after starting as a onetime lark.
"We played with a great group of women in Boston, a group called the Burlesque Revival Association," Viglione explained. "So Amanda brought along some makeup, lingerie and tights. She got into this great get-up and, with a boa, looked like a 1930s hooker. I had my suit, and it just clicked. It felt really natural. And we went to a photo shoot, and we thought to set this little table and a wine bottle and glasses and candles, and the look just clicked."
Music fans looking for something a little left of the mainstream dial can catch the Dresden Dolls on the upcoming Lollapalooza tour. Be forewarned, however: Even though there are just two people onstage, their set is anything but sparse.
"One of the things that drew me to Amanda was the passion and intensity of her playing," Viglione said. "By having just two people up there, there's nothing to get in the way to disperse or dilute the chemistry. People watch us like they do a tennis match. Their heads turn back and forth and a volley sort of happens."
"Think of it like watching a play," Palmer added. "It's a lot more intense to watch two people onstage having an argument than to watch 50 people at a cocktail party."