The Boston-based Dresden Dolls have a unique sound commonly referred to as punk cabaret, and that's an accurate description, given the tenacity with which keyboardist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione attack their instruments. They're also frequently compared to the White Stripes, which isn't accurate at all, since the bands have little in common except for each having two members (though the Dolls poked fun at this comparison on last summer's tour by dressing at the Stripes and performing "My Doorbell" at some shows.) It's a good bet the Dresden Dolls won't have to deal with such lazy comparisons for much longer, because everyone is likely to know who they are after the release of Yes, Virginia, a collection of theatrical songs with plenty of attitude and unfailingly gripping lyrics, including as many clever one-liners as you'd find on a Ludacris album.
Palmer's vocal delivery is captivating throughout the record, with her deliberate enunciation of each syllable and the way she switches between singing and talking as she performs the voices of different characters. Viglione provides exactly what's needed for each song, from the frenzied drumming of "Modern Moonlight" to the subtle cymbals of "First Orgasm", to songs that combine both elements, like "Sex Changes," a standout track that isnt about an operation but rather the aftermath of losing ones virginity. The opening line of that song -- "Dear Mr. and/or Mrs. Sender" -- provides a fitting introduction to the off-kilter lyrics that are Palmer's trademark.
One of the strengths of Palmer's words is that, though they are deeply intelligent and thoughtful, they're always easily accessible. It doesn't take a lot of digging to discover the meaning of the songs, which is usually something fairly universal. "First Orgasm" is an updated version of "She Bop" for the brokenhearted and depressed. It's a stark portrait of a lonely morning at home, which concludes with Palmer twice pleading, "Won't you hold me?" "Me and the Minibar" has a similar theme, except the setting is a hotel room at night. And then there's one of the album's most obviously cabaret-sounding tracks, "My Alcoholic Friends," which focuses on the negative (and some of the positive) effects of being a boozehound.
"Backstabber" is a 4-minute litany of insults aimed at some unknown critic, apparently a jealous member of another band. Palmer wails, "Failure has made you so cruel" and "you only sleep with girls who say they like your music," then adds with indignation, "Don't tell me not to reference my songs within my songs." Viglione's rare appearance on background vocals suggests he is eager to join in the bashing as well.
For all of her venom and sometimes-frightening intensity, Palmer has a sharp wit. "Shores of California" examines the eternal relationship troubles men and women encounter due to their different priorities, "and thats why God made escort agencies, One Life to Live and mace and GHB," Palmer sings, before ultimately observing, "All around the nation, the girls are crying and the boys are masturbating."
The only misstep (and it's not a serious one) is "Sing," which is literally about the joys of singing. It has a pleasant melody and positive message, but it's also pretty lame for a band known for PG-13 and sometimes R-rated subject matter.
Despite their lyrical edginess, most of these songs have surprisingly mainstream melodies, which can only help to expand the duo's fan base. Yes, Virginia, it is possible to become rock stars in the year 2006 performing creative cabaret pop music.