And that’s the way it’s been since protozoa first climbed onto the shores of California.
The Dresden Dolls are a two-piece band from Boston, with vocals and piano by Amanda Palmer, she of the garter belts and bleach-white makeup, and drums, backup vocals, and occasional guitar by Brian Viglione, he of the Stan Laurel bowler hat. These two are rapidly rising in fame due their considerable talent, witty and insightful lyrics, and their, shall we say, personal sense of style.
The Roundhouse is a legendary avant garde theater in London that, during the 60s, saw performances by the Who, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones. When it reopened its doors in 2006, Amanda and Brian took over the famous stage for a performance like no other, captured for the world to see on this disc.
DVD Verdict is proud to present Mac Writes about the Dresden Dolls, Part Two: Into the Vortex, a review in two acts. Act One deals with the writer’s own sense of separation anxiety from the band, and Act Two deals with band’s new DVD.
Act One: The Missing Brigade
Where did the magic go? Back in March of 2006, the Dresden Dolls came out of nowhere and kind of took over my life for a short while. I kept coincidentally running into information about them everywhere I went, until I was finally compelled to see them in person, and then to review their DVD, The Dresden Dolls: Paradise in the same week. Although it’s not normally my “thing,” I found myself enjoying their music quite a lot, and I was equally intrigued by their fans, a passionate group of quirky performance artists and all-around eccentrics who call themselves “The Brigade.”
For this new DVD, I decided it wouldn’t be enough to merely observe the Brigade in action. I wanted to speak to some of them, to see if I could understand why they are so driven to do what they do. I wanted to use this space to give them a chance to discuss their art, their lives, and their mind-bogglingly eccentric taste in clothing. Frustratingly, I discovered the Brigade online forum, called “The Shadowbox,” was on a lasting-longer-than-expected hiatus. Even more frustratingly, one Brigade-related Myspace page reported that the Brigade had been banned from doing its Brigade thing on the band’s current tour, thanks to the behavior of one inconsiderate individual. I set out to connect with the Brigade, and instead I feel cut off from them.
What to do, then? This couldn’t be just another DVD review. Not after everything I went through to write the last one. So, I did what I always do when experiencing the ol’ writer’s block—spend the day in Boston. Just being there, walking up and down the streets, seeing all the colorful characters strolling about. There’s something about the city that gets the creativity going for me every time. I wasn’t expecting to bump into a member of the Brigade while exploring Beantown, but I hoped for inspiration of some sort.
I had my first music-related experience almost immediately after stepping off the T (a.k.a. the subway for you out-of-towners) at the Boston Common, where I saw an honest-to-God heavy metal chick walk by me. She was the real deal: Long mane-like hair, black Iron Maiden t-shirt, short black leather skirt, knee-high boots, and tons of attitude. I thought heavy metal chicks had been extinct for at least a decade, but here was one right in front of me. I wanted to go up to her and say, “Iron Maiden, yeah! We are the clansmen!” But if I had, she probably would have switchbladed me, so I kept my distance.
This was a Saturday in August, and it was hot. Real hot. The kind of heat that makes it feel like you’ve got a pair of bricks on each shoulder while you’re walking around. The various street vendors around the fringes of the common had to hawk their fried dough and roasted peanuts with more enthusiasm than usual, because not many folks looked in the mood for a warm treat. That being said, those roasted peanuts still smelled plenty delicious. It’s not the same as in winter, when the warm smell breaks through the cold and hits you as walk by, all bundled up. What a great feeling that is.
Die-hard Bostonians will no doubt balk at this decision. Here I was, hoping to connect with the city, that it would speak to me somehow, and I instantly become a cliché and head straight to a tourist attraction? This occurred to me as well, but there’s a somewhat hidden gem in this area that’s always been a favorite of mine—Durgin Park, which, unlike some sad tour guide in an ill-fitting period costume, actually does date back to the Revolutionary War. Sitting in the bar area, I could sense decades of history surrounding me as I relaxed for a good, hearty lunch. A giant statue of a pig stood in one corner of the room. I’m told that there’s quite the funny story about this thing, but I’ve yet to hear it. Maybe next time. I paid attention to an especially cute blonde waitress as she paused to enjoy a quick cup of soup—her lunch, apparently. I tried to eavesdrop on her conversation with the other waitresses, but the only words I could make out were “table four,” so I’m guessing it was nothing scandalous. Just seconds before I officially turned into a creepy stalker, my lunch arrived, and this place has the most amazing pot roast imaginable. Soft to chew and rich in flavor, it was as close to perfect as a meal can get.
I left Durgin Park in awe of my lunch, but still without that one piece of inspiration I need to write about the Brigade. I wandered around Faneuil, because, hey, why not? Instead of looking at the shops or the attractions, I instead observed the people. This only made me feel more disconnected to the Brigade. Everyone at Faneuil that afternoon was, for lack of a better word, normal. Plain pastel shirts, shorts, sandals, babies in strollers, short hair and sunglasses on the men, women with sensible ponytails under baseball caps, and so on. This is not the place for the Brigade, whose members fascinated me because of how not normal they are. I realized that if I was going to have an experience like the one I had last year, I wasn’t going to find it here. I had to go where the music was, where there was a reputation for edginess and raw cool. I had to go to Landsdowne Street.
For most people, this wouldn’t be a big deal. The problem with me, though, is that I happen to be a clueless loser, and clueless losers are not welcome after sunset at the clubs and bars on Landsdowne Street. If losers aren’t chased off by all the pretty and perfect people, then they’re merely bludgeoned in the street or carted off in a plain white van never to be seen or heard from again. Think about it: if you’re a perfect person wearing all your perfect clothes in the coolest of cool nightclubs with your perfect significant other and all your perfect friends, you’re not going to want a clueless loser in your vicinity for fear that his or her imperfections might somehow rub off on you and you can’t have that. Such has been my past experiences at Landsdowne Street. (And, again, I’m sure some Bostonians would no doubt chide me for this, claiming that even Landsdowne is too “mainstream,” and that I don’t even know where the really cool spots are. It’s true; for as much as I love Boston, there are still many parts of the city I’ve yet to explore.)
Pausing for a moment to sit on a bench at the Boston Public Garden to watch the sunset, it occurred to me that this experience is the opposite of my first experience with the Dresden Dolls. Then, it was at night, and very cold. Now, it was day, and incredibly hot. Then, the Brigade took me by surprise as I wandered right into their crazy shenanigans. Now, after actively looking for them, I can’t connect with them. Then, the Dresden Dolls performed on stage, mere feet from me. Now, they performed in Europe, suddenly seeming more far away than ever. The sun set, the sky grew black, the city lit up, and I got up off that bench and headed to Landsdowne, still in search of inspiration.
Obviously, there’s one other claim to fame for Landsdowne Street, and that’s the one and only Fenway Park. Just walking past it, even on a night like this when it was closed and darkened, I could feel all the history coming off of it. Fenway looks and feels old, but old in a good way, like it’s been there since the Earth’s crust cooled, and it’ll still be there after the Martians eventually attack and lay waste to all human civilization. But I wasn’t here for baseball, I was here for music. I first poked my head inside Axis, the alleged home of the super-cool and mega-trendy, only to find it mostly empty. Someone must have warned them I was coming. Jake Ivory’s had attracted a huge crowd, but it was a bachelorette party, so I got out of there quick. This landed me inside Bill’s Bar, where a live band was about to play.
There was a decent-sized crowd inside, enough to get a good ruckus going, but not so huge that you can’t move and people keep accidentally elbowing each other in the face. I got a seat right next to the speakers, which made everything screwdrivers-into-the-skull loud, but whatever. A band called The Crushing Low took the stage, looking like four ordinary guys in jeans and t-shirts. Their toe-tapping songs were like “comfort rock,” not hard-edged, but not watered down either. A cute girl in a short skirt went up on stage at one point and handed the drummer two gigantic glasses of beer for him drink while performing, which I thought was perfect “drummer” behavior. After a few cool songs, the singer announced they had just formed and this was the band’s first-ever gig. And that’s when it hit me—my inspiration. The Dresden Dolls’ music means different things to different people, I’m sure, and at that moment, I realized what it meant to me. The music—and, by extension, the Brigade—represent to me the excitement of discovering something new; the wonders of new experience. Will The Crushing Low ever become so popular it has its own “Brigade,” not to mention its own performance at the Roundhouse in London? Who knows? All I knew is that the first time they ever played for an audience, I was a part of that audience. Their music will never be as new as it was that night, and I’ll always have the memory of experiencing it.
So I wasn’t able to talk to actual members of the Brigade like I wished. Perhaps I will someday, if the Brigade continues to exist in the future. Either way, I had found my inspiration. Now I was finally ready to take on the DVD.
Act Two: The DVD
The main program on the disc, at just over two hours, is the Dresden Dolls’ concert at the Roundhouse, recorded on Nov. 4, 2006. It’s a genuine concert film beginning as the Amanda and Brian take the stage and ending just after their final encore. Here’s the song list:
• “Sex Changes”
• “Modern Moonlight”
• “Mrs. O”
• “Coin Operated Boy”
• “Two-Headed Boy”
• “Mandy Goes to Med School”
• “Lonesome Organist Rapes Page Turner”
• “The Jeep Song”
• “Dirty Business”
• “Shores of California”
• “Mein Herr”
• “Mad World”
• “Girl Anachronism”
On one hand, it’s got to be a challenge for a filmmaker to capture this show and make it exciting, since it’s mostly Amanda at the piano and Brian at the drums. On the other hand, Amanda and Brian make it easy for a filmmaker to capture this show because of all the energy and heart they give to each song. Amanda’s fingers go back and forth from delicately dancing along the keys to hammering down on them with fury. Similarly, Brian is a madman once he gets going. It’s an amazing sight to see him pound down on those drums with so much passion and skill. He gets a few nice “drum solo” moments here, and they really get the blood pumping.
A few songs mix things up visually, though. At times, various dancers, performance artists, and even an acrobat or two hit the stage in between Brian and Amanda to give the proceedings a little more visual “oomph.” As bizarre as some of these acts are, they’re never in danger of upstaging the Dolls. The fans are understandingly enthusiastic, cheering wildly and lighting sparklers at the appropriate times. A few audience members even get invited on stage at one point as a makeshift group of backup singers. It’s a horrible, disgusting cliché to say, “It’s the next best thing to being there,” but I’ll be damned if that’s what it felt like to me.
The disc also comes with a documentary about the show, focusing mostly on the gaggle of oddball artists who performed at the pre-show before the Dolls came out on stage. Each artist gets to discuss his or her background and art form of choice, followed by clips of them in action. These folks are wonderfully quirky, and yet I wonder if the entire pre-show could have been included, as it was on the Paradise DVD. The documentary also has some footage of Amanda and Brian, but not as much as you’d think. Plus, you get some more looks at the Brigade (sigh…) as they add some live music and interactive spins on their “living statue” routines.
The concert lighting has a mostly blue and purple color scheme, and the sharp visuals on this disc show them off nicely. Sound is key for any music disc, and the three tracks here, in DTS, Dolby 5.1, and Dolby stereo, are all good ones, with the edge going to the first two. The piano and drums fill the entire room as the disc makes excellent use of all the speakers. Two bonus songs with guest performers are included as extras, along with a nicely designed booklet that provides more background info on the many artists seen in the documentary. Overall, it’s a must-own for fans. If you’re not familiar with the Dresden Dolls and are wondering what they’re all about, I say this is a great choice for those who are curious. Give this disc a spin and discover something new.
Dear Mr. or Mrs. Sender,
We’re pleased to inform you that your application’s been accepted
Starting from the time you get this letter
Your life might be one never ending
“I thought this music would be better”
We all have different tastes—you get your choice of a critic
No need to chop your (uh, you know) off
Tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock
It might not be what you expected
There’s no money back if you’re feeling wary
But your mileage might vary
I always hate when writers write about not knowing what to write about, and that’s just what I’ve done here. Pity me.
As for this DVD, it’s just what fans are looking for, and it will make an excellent, if eye-opening, introduction to newcomers. It’s a great performance, and a solid disc.