As half of the self-described “Brechtian punk” duo Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer uses her husky voice and rowdy piano playing to set herself apart from a legion of female songsmiths selling chirpy docility. Her embrace of cabaret’s twisted side helps too; her lyrics have covered such ground as masturbation devices, cutting, and the downside of sex changes. Deviance is also a key topic on her debut solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, but she examines it in a somewhat more personalized—and occasionally even tender—manner. Since she and drummer Brian Viglione formed Dresden Dolls in 2001, the Boston twosome has established a cult that thrills to the raw charisma of its live shows, and it’s difficult to imagine Palmer generating as much heat on her own. But then her album was meant to be restrained: Who Killed Amanda Palmer was initially designed as a drums-free affair. Recording began in 2006 in Palmer’s Boston bedroom, but new pal Ben Folds eventually convinced her to move the proceedings to his Nashville studio. Soon, more instruments were added—played by Folds and his associates—including strings, horns, and (so much for plans) drums. Palmer is Dresden Dolls’ primary songwriter, and inevitably her new songs resemble those of her main band. Her singing is coarser than ever, perhaps due to recent surgery to remove nodes on her vocal cords, but her puckish wit is unaffected. The opener, “Astronaut,” boasts a rousing piano and percussion intro that soon gives way to lyrics about distance in relationships: “But you are, my love, the astronaut/Flying in the face of science/I will gladly stay an afterthought/Just bring back some nice reminders,” Palmer sings over prickly piano chords and crashing cymbals. Yes, there are drums, though Viglione’s Bonham-on-Broadway panache is certainly missed. Other songs, like “Runs in the Family,” wouldn’t sound out of place in the Dresden Dolls songbook; the tune’s manic energy and cheekily morbid lyrics (“My friend has maladies, rickets, and allergies”) paint a tragicomic picture of illness, mental and otherwise. Other numbers mark departures for her, for better and for worse. “Ampersand” is a piano ballad that plays like a punk-cabaret Tori Amos. It seems like every generation gets its nonconformist piano goddess, and if you’re a troubled yet literate teen, this can be a splendorous thing. But Palmer can do better than pander to the gloomier, younger segments of her audience. “Leeds United” offers relief from such pained self-reflection with a straightforward Britpop bounce that’s different from Dresden Dolls’ bipolar arrangements. “Who needs love when there’s Law & Order?” she wails. “Who needs love when there’s Southern Comfort?/Who needs love when the sandwiches are wicked and they know you at the Mac store?” It’s odd to hear the same woman who penned a song like Dresden Dolls fan favorite “Girl Anachronism” dropping pop-culture references, but that’s what solo albums are for. With its chafing observations and arch sensuality, Who Killed Amanda Palmer is a captivating record. It could probably use more drums, though.
Amanda Palmer performs Tuesday, Nov. 18, at the 9:30 Club.