The Good: Great lyrics, Good instrumental accompaniment, Moments of vocals, Duration
The Bad: Moments of vocals, Ultimately depressing.
The Basics: A difficult to listen to, but close to perfect, album, Yes, Virginia has a few vocal slips that make the depressing album just under perfect.
There is always something alarming for me whenever I discover my wife and my ex- have anything in common. So when they planned to meet one another and my ex- responded almost immediately to a quote from a song by The Dresden Dolls, I had to cringe. My wife loves the music of The Dresden Dolls and some time ago, she introduced me to their music with their eponymous album and I found myself impressed and a little scared. After all, the dark, kind of skanky lyrics seemed incongruent with my lovable, friendly and adorable wife. After listening to that album, I was a little hesitant to listen to Yes, Virginia, which had the songs my wife actually liked on it!
Yes, Virginia is a thematically dark, musically diverse, vocally problematic album that I recommend for those who want to stay mired in a dark place. The music is murky and often more upbeat than the lyrics would imply and it is frequently troubling to listen to when one listens closely, at least for happy, adult, monogamists who are not part of the club scene, self-loathing or stricken with a strong desire for suicide. I wonder how my younger self would evaluate this album . . . As it stands, Yes, Virginia is a dark escapist thrill for me, on par with enjoying a horror movie or a drama where the protagonist is beaten around emotionally before she or he is finally killed.
With thirteen tracks occupying 55:24 on a single c.d., Yes, Virginia is very much the work of the group The Dresden Dolls. Lead singer Amanda Palmer wrote all of the songs and she provides all of the lead vocals on the album. Palmer also plays piano on several of the songs, while her bandmate Brian Viglione plays the drums, percussion, bass and standard guitar. The duet is credited as co-producers of the album, so it is hard to argue that this was not the musical vision the band intended.
That said, the musical vision is very similar to the prior album by the band that I’ve heard. The Dresden Dolls are a cabaret band, which means that their musical style is intended to be simple enough to be played by the pair and evoke the sound of a small stage act with music. The album highlights the instrumental talents of the pair by effectively combining piano and guitar on tracks like “Sing” and “Backstabber.” The sound is a little limited, though and there tends to be a strangely playful sound to many of the songs. “My Alcoholic Friends” has a swell and fall sound to it that is almost enough to make one seasick. It sounds like a sea chantey and the musical simplicity of many of the songs – “Delilah” frequently sounds like random musings on the piano – is deceptive and offset by the lyrics and vocal performances.
This is not to say the album is musically bad. In fact, it is refreshing to hear the diversity of songs and sounds on Yes, Virginia. For being limited to primarily two instruments per song, The Dresden Dolls make it work for them. They start out frenetic and energetic on “Sex Changes” and descend into quiet and moody on “First Orgasm.” No two songs on Yes, Virginia sound alike and that is nice.
Yes, Virginia is plagued, though, by the vocals. Amanda Palmer can clearly sing because there are moments when she pulls her vocals back from the brink, like when she seems to have overextended her lung capacity on “Sex Changes” before getting words out melodically. But during the more angry moments in “Backstabber” and “Dirty Business,” she slips on notes and screeches. The unsettling result is that sometimes Yes, Virginia is amelodic and hard to listen to. One assumes that is a stylistic choice on the part of Palmer and the Dresden Dolls, but it’s a tough one for me to swallow; I like to hear talent that is used, not abused!
What makes Yes, Virginia truly worthwhile is the lyrics. Palmer knows how to write and she has a fearless quality to her writing and presentation that is refreshing and impressive. The level of diction the band uses puts to shame virtually anyone working in pop music. When Palmer sings, with clarity and anger, “Lift your hats / Off to the checkout girls with tattooed backs / They'd make an angels skin crawl / If you ask them for assistance / There's an even chance / You'll get a number / To all the girls and all the surly boys who get to masticate them / I've a prize for each and every one of you so just be patient / To all the ones that hated me the most, a toast / You really had me going for a second I was nervous boy, am I the poster girl” (“Dirty Business”) it is hard not to be taken and appreciate the quality of the writing. One feels chewed up and spit out just listening to the poetry of the song’s lyrics!
More than anything else The Dresden Dolls sing about dysfunctional relationships, which fits their vocal style quite well. Arguably their masterpiece on this album is “Delilah.” That song explores the annoyance of having a friend in an abusive relationship who fails constantly to learn from her mistakes. With lines like “. . . you thought you could change the world / By opening your legs / It isn’t very hard / Try kicking them instead / And you thought you could change his mind / By changing your perfume to the kind his mother wore / O god delilah why? / I never met a more impossible girl . . . You’re an unrescuable schizo / Or else you’re on the rag / And if you take him back / I’m gonna lose my nerve / I never met a more impossible girl” (“Delilah”) the band perfectly captures the angst surrounding being in a relationship with a self-destructive (or stupid) person.
This is not to say the album is completely about miserable people acting poorly. No, Yes, Virginia has its moments of tongue-in-cheek humor, which is perfectly appropriate for the genre. Indeed, the sense of irony is just dripping from some of the songs. “Mrs. O” is deceptive in the way it earnestly presents itself with the lines “We all know / There's no hell and no Hiroshima / Chernobyl was a cover up / The world is really all in love” being presented with a serious quality that is ultimately laughable.
In the end, Yes, Virginia is dark and frequently unpleasant to listen to, but it works. Great art ought to evoke a reaction in the person experiencing the art and for music, being unsettled is sometimes the desired reaction. The Dresden Dolls nail that perfectly (or almost) on Yes, Virginia.
The best song is “Delilah,” the low point is the unmemorable “Modern Moonlight.”
For other interesting music, please check out my reviews of:
10,000 Days - Tool
Then: The Early Years - They Might Be Giants
Many Great Companions - Dar Williams
For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.