Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: a singer/songwriter branches out from his or her band to release a collection of “solo material.” The inevitable blog buzz builds. Chatter rises about potential turmoil within the group. Some people even celebrate the idea that an artist can finally explore and express new ideas that he or she may not have been able within the confines of a group dynamic.
You hear word about “high profile” producers and collaborators. A killer advance single may even leak that convinces you that you’re really in for something extraordinary. Then the album drops, you pop it in for a listen and it sinks in: This doesn’t sound all that different from the band. It’s nothing new. Individual output from artists as diverse as Thom Yorke, Jenny Lewis, and Siouxsie Sioux over recent years, while far from terrible, has done little to justify its existence outside of the respective bands. To that growing list, we can now add Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer and her Ben Folds-produced, “Twin Peak”- nodding debut, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?.
Perhaps I’m just being too cynical. After all, many of the songs included here are quite good, and most of the highlights actually began as live favorites during the Dolls’ myriad tours, most notably in the lush opener “Astronaut (A Short History of Nearly Nothing),” which now features swelling strings courtesy of Rasputina’s Zoe Keating. Other stand-outs include “Ampersand,” a sobering ballad in the vein of Yes, Virginia’s “Delilah” that once again seems to explore a dysfunctional relationship this time from an internal perspective, and the perky “Oasis,” a single-in-the-making sporting girl-group harmonies, Cars-styled synths and archetypically Palmer-esque lyrics about date rape and abortion.
Indeed, a good deal of these songs would be right at home on any Dresden Dolls album (Maybe, Virginia perhaps?), but that’s the point. Why go through the facade of a solo outing when your best songs originated within the band? Why not record versions of these that include the fierce and propulsive percussion of fellow Doll Brian Viglione? Furthermore, if you insist on asserting your independence, why not choose collaborators that actually challenge your aesthetic and listeners’ expectations in order to make something unique instead of ones that, while undeniably talented, merely encourage and accentuate attributes that were already prevalent in your work?
Ben Folds is in full-on “Brick”-hurling mode here with his production, and while on paper a team-up between him and Palmer sounds like a match made in Heaven, his quirky touches frequently get lost amidst Palmer’s trademark in-your-face melodrama. The one exception where their styles truly come together into something worthy of them is on the sauntering “Leeds United,” a delectable slice of Cabaret swagger complete with swanky big-band trumpets. The other team-ups don’t work nearly as well as they sound like they would. Annie Clark of St. Vincent fame is wasted on the soporific Carousel cover “What’s the Use of Wonderin’?” while East Bay Ray’s guitars add little to the already slight “Guitar Hero.”
Perhaps the only way for an artist to truly shine on his or her own is to cast aside the band altogether. Frank Black wrote some of his most intriguing (if not ultimately satisfying) work post-Pixies, and Björk continues to spin beautifully challenging gold from her Sugarcubes’ straw. But should it really have to come to that before a solo album can take on genuine artistic relevance? Do band artists really have something unique to say beyond their collectives any more or are they simply going it alone to prove that they can? These are questions that deserve answers, and any of those answers would probably be more satisfying in the end than the answer to Who Killed Amanda Palmer? Nobody may have killed her yet, but she’s certainly veering dangerously close to shooting herself in the foot.
Look for Who Killed Amanda Palmer? in stores September 16, 2008.
Written by: Rob Huff
Filed under: album reviews | Tagged: album review, amanda palmer, Annie Clark, Ben Folds, Bjork, Brian Viglione, dresden dolls, East Bay Ray, Frank Black, jenny lewis, Pixes, Rasputina, rob huff, Siouxsie Sioux, st. vincent, Sugarcubes, Thom Yorke, Zoe Keating |