Thursday, September 20, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre is Evil

By Steve Jones.

Amanda Palmer, formally one half of The Dresden Dolls, is back with her first studio album since 2008's Who Killed Amanda Palmer? This time, she enlisted the help of a three-person backing band, affectionately dubbed "The Grand Theft Orchestra," and consigned to record the sprawling 71-minute Theatre is Evil.

I can vividly remember my introduction to The Dresden Dolls. It was during the Nerd Camp '05 (not the program's real name) impromptu talent show starring one of my friends, Sheila. Sheila was super nice and fun to play DDR with, but to look at her she was tall and intimidating, with frizzy black hair, black lipstick, a black tank top, and black Goth pants. She stood absolutely still, staring at the floor, until the CD player started playing "Coin-Operated Boy" by The Dresden Dolls. Sheila sprung to life as a wind-up automaton and performed a clockwork interpretive dance to the song. It was a moment of defiant weirdness, of vaudevillian liberation, as she jerked her limbs to and fro along with the toy piano sounds and naughty, funny, and heartfelt lyrics. We all applauded, and I did so as much for the song as for Sheila's performance. It wasn't like the music I heard on the radio. This music was strange and dark and transgressive, but still fun and catchy, and I liked it.

Theatre is Evil is none of these things, and I don't like it. So what happened?

I will acknowledge that my reviewing this album is a pointless exercise. People who were already interested in this album have already heard it (and probably liked it), and people who don't care for Amanda Palmer aren't going to have their minds changed after this. I write, however, because I believe there are lessons to be learned from Theatre is Evil. Take heed, dear reader.

The big story about Theatre is Evil is of course its $1.2 million Kickstarter success story (towards which I gladly contributed), and I think it's unfortunate that any album's crowdfunded distribution should overshadow its content. Such a distinction is not inescapable, as Radiohead's In Rainbows has certainly outlived the time period when paying what one wanted for an album was a novelty. However, the fact that this record should be overshadowed by the circumstances around it is indicative of my larger problem with it. Namely, music takes a backseat. Palmer, who once captured my ears with a rebellious spirit and fresh sound, challenges nothing with this record. Not music, not herself, and not her fans.

It's ironic that Amanda Palmer should slag the major label record industry within the same breath that she releases her most radio-friendly album by far. Musically and lyrically, Theatre is Evil is almost exactly the kind of vague, inoffensive, tried-and-true radio rock that corporations love to put in their commercials about cars and acne medication. It's pandering and uninteresting. It's never dangerous. This isn't an album you'd hide from your parents. And let's not kid ourselves calling a three person backing band "The Grand Theft Orchestra"; they're a rock band. Even when brass or strings enter the mix, they do so with little aplomb, nervously playing at the fringes of the arrangements and never actually driving the songs to new heights or different soundscapes. Everything feels too safe. I never would have called Amanda Palmer a brilliant songwriter, but she had this refreshing and poetic kind of brutal honesty to her songs that made them work. Here, her personality feels buried, and the songs just aren't strong enough to redeem themselves with their other qualities.

After a short introduction where Palmer introduces the band in German (because why not), the first proper song is "Smile (Pictures or It Didn't Happen)." From the start, this album wants you, needs you to know who much biggerer and louderer it sounds, so this song chooses to announce this fact by shoving all of its sound into a monotonously compressed block of clipped noise. I guess they were going for a shoegazey vibe? It doesn't work with this song and everything it wants to do, but I do actually like "Smile" more than most of the album. The slightly formless verses transform into a marcato chorus pummeled with sliding guitar riffs and cymbal crashes. It's stadium rock, but it's fun, even though it'd be much better and more "epic" with an actual sense of rising action towards the high points of the song. As it is, the track stumbles more so than marches.

From there, the majority of the album spends time imitating Goth rock and classic rock and doing everything REALLY LOUDLY so as to ensnare your attention. But, you know, at least the songs on the radio have the decency to limit themselves to about three minutes. The only song on the album which doesn't surpass four minutes is the instrumental interlude "A Grand Theft Intermission." As a side note, please do not compare this track to Beirut. Beirut played Legos with the Balkan brass sound; these guys play Mega Bloks. Back to my point, though, there are way too many songs on this album which exceed the six minute mark and have absolutely no justification for doing so. It reeks of the crucial lack of self-editing that plagues Theatre is Evil.

Unsurprisingly, the best parts of the album happen when Amanda Palmer peeks out from behind the band and shows some actual personality. "Trout Heart Replica" is a piano-driven ballad which would have felt at home in Who Killed Amanda Palmer? Unfortunately, its 7 minute run time stretches the song musically and lyrically thin, and attempts to enrich the sound with strings come across as hasty and superficial. The most touching moment of the song is its last minute (which would have worked better on its own), when Palmer briefly sheds the album's pretense of hugeness and sings softly and intimately into the microphone. Even this technique is cheapened, however, by the fact that she does exactly the same thing to close the album's other 7 minute song, "Berlin." Say what you will about The Dresden Dolls, but at least their music felt raw and organic. Here, the songs come together in a paint-by-number fashion, where nothing is surprising and nothing is challenging.

Theatre is Evil's high point is "The Bed Song." Again, it's just Amanda and her piano, but more so it's the one song on the album where I feel her words shine. Her simple and direct lyrics describe the rise and fall of a relationship in terms of the different beds a couple shares. Increasing emotional distance is tied to the increasing size of the beds, ending with both partners lying next to each other in the grave. It's the rare moment when even simple poetry overcomes the pompous posturing of the rest of the tracks.

Musically, this record is banality and pedantry, but it also wasn't made for me. It was made for the fans and given a life of its own by the fans, and is that good thing? Artists are buoyed by their fans. Artist make their livings off their fans. Artists want to attract fans, and artists want to keep fans, but artists shouldn't pander to their fans, and that's what this album feels like. Theatre is Evil is less a product of Amanda Palmer the Musician and more a product of Amanda Palmer the Counter-Culture Icon, Amanda Palmer the Entrepreneur, and even Amanda Palmer the Visual Artist (via the Kickstarter's emphasis on ~fancy~ packaging). And it's wonderful for her to be all of those things. I hope she keeps having her wild and fun live performances. I hope she continues to learn that people and businesses are held accountable not just for the money their earn but the way in which they invest (and don't invest) it. I hope she and her fans are truly happy for out-placing Justin Bieber on the Billboard charts. But I don't care about any of those things here. I care about music. I'm going to call out a bullshit album when I hear it, and Theatre is Evil is a bullshit album. It's not offensively bad, but it is offensively mediocre. If this is what the Future of Music produces, you can count me out.

This brings me to my last point. One of the bonus tracks provided to Kickstarter backers like me is "Ukulele Anthem," in which Palmer sings the line, "stop pretending art is hard." The song is a light novelty tune, but that particular line sticks with me, because that sentiment in itself seems to be Palmer's own anthem of late. She's even used Twitter to earn some pocket change by selling T-shirts proclaiming such ("She's not a businessman; she's a business, man."). And it's a good sentiment, that nobody should be scared away from creating their own pieces of art, from expressing themselves in new ways. Art, however, if it's something you really love, is hard in the long run. A pursuit of art should be a restless pursuit, filled with practice, study, effort, doubt, criticism, agony, ecstasy, and sacrifice. The difficulty of creation can be what makes a piece of art worthwhile to someone, either to a creator or to an audience. Artists who rest on their laurels, who settle into a pattern of ease and familiarity, are those who have lost their élan vital.

No, making art isn't hard, but making good art is actually something worth a fight and a struggle. I think that's something Amanda Palmer used to believe.

Score: Strong 3 

(Steve Jones will answer any questions regarding Nerd Camp '05 at his Twitter @vestenet. Thanks for reading!)

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry Steve but we won't be paying you for this review. I will subject you to an awkward hug and some mediocre beer for your efforts though.