I’ve been fortunate enough to catch The Dresden Dolls once in concert and Amanda Palmer once at a free in-store show. The first was an intense and disciplined performance that still sticks with me. The second was a total mess. In an hour, she played maybe six or seven (not very long) songs. Most of the set time consisted of her telling stories. While it was an enjoyable evening, it was a pretty terrible live performance, and one that I would never want to listen to at home. Unfortunately, the spirit of that second show is captured on Palmer’s new mostly live album, Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under. The performances here are unfocused at best and give the listener the impression that every Amanda Palmer show is at least a partial train wreck.
On the bright side, fans of Amanda Palmer get to hear a lot of her on this album. That’s because there’s not much else here. The vast majority of these songs are solo performances—unfocused, sloppy performances. Nearly every live track opens with some banter between Palmer and the audience. This would be fine if she had more interesting things to say, but for the most part, she just sounds distracted. On “We’re Happy Little Vegemites”, (one of two songs about Vegemite on here) Palmer’s stage banter takes up more than half of the track’s short run-time. Stage banter can be a vital part of a concert experience--Larkin Grimm has shown me that a skilled musician can blur the line between an introduction to the song and the song itself. But Palmer has nothing to say to the audience that remains interesting to a home listener.
Strangely, the decision to include an excessive amount of stage banter makes a perverted sort of sense. The songs on here are among her weakest, and the instrumentation sparse. “Make Whoopie” opens the album with a booming announcer introducing Palmer to the audience and then the song starts. . . with ukulele as the sole instrumentation. It’s a cute song, but it’s about as light as it comes. Yet, when Palmer sticks to the ukulele on this album, she’s largely more successful than she is on piano. Musically, “Australia” and “Vegemite” both feel overwrought when contrasted to their lyrical content. The result is a song that may elicit laughter from the audience, but at home, boredom is the result.
The album’s strongest tracks, “Map of Tasmania” and “In My Mind” are actually studio tracks. “In My Mind” keeps the instrumentation minimal, but still feels more fleshed out and finished than any of the live performances on here. “Map of Tasmania” opens with ukulele, but it abruptly turns into an electro-pop song. I wasn’t enamored with it –somehow the added instrumentation just makes her voice more abrasive— but it’s a fun, lively song, which is more than I can say for the rest of the album.
Every track on here seems to fall into one of two camps: the brooding piano ballad or a tossed-off novelty song. “Vegemite (The Black Death)” manages to be both. Palmer excels at the former category, but coupled with some of her silliest songs ever, tracks like “Doctor Oz” and “On an Unknown Beach” fail to hit home. My favorite song on here was Nick Cave cover, “The Ship Song”. Here, Palmer gives the song a simple, elegant rendition that lets the strong melody and lyrics shine through, making it one of those covers that compares favorably to the original.
Amanda Palmer and The Dresden Dolls are maybe the best example of the importance of good drummers. When teamed with Brian Viglione, not only were Palmer’s songs more focused, but so were her performances. She wrote all of the material, but Viglione’s presence still mattered. So far, her solo career is a bit of a mess. She’s still capable of putting some interesting songs together, and she knows how to connect with an audience, but even her last album didn’t match the power of a collection of Dresden Dolls outtakes. It’s been five years since the Dresden Dolls released an official studio album, and Palmer still seems to be trying to find her voice.
1. Makin’ Whoopee
3. Vegemite (The Black Death)
4. Map of Tasmania
5. In My Mind
6. Bad Wine and Lemon Cake
7. New Zealand
8. On an Unknown Beach
9. We’re Happy Little Vegemites
10. Doctor Oz
11. A Formidable Marinade
12. The Ship Song