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Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil Review

September 28, 2012 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas

1. “Meow Meow Introduces The Grand Theft Orchestra” (0:18)
2. “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)” (6:27)
3. “The Killing Type” (4:29)
4. “Do It with a Rockstar” (4:25)
5. “Want It Back” (4:09)
6. “Grown Man Cry” (5:16)
7. “Trout Heart Replica” (7:09)
8. “A Grand Theft Intermission” (2:07)
9. “Lost” (4:31)
10. “Bottomfeeder” (6:13)
11. “The Bed Song” (6:07)
12. “Massachusetts Avenue” (4:40)
13. “Melody Dean” (4:02)
14. “Berlin” (7:17)
15. “Olly Olly Oxen Free” (4:06)

There are many music fans today who lament the state of pop music. In a genre dominated by the financially-driven need to insert as many radio-friendly beats and chart-topping hooks as possible, the genre is often criticized for lacking any real sense of artistry anymore and essentially just being an assembly line where hits are mechanically constructed and thrown in a pretty package for the consumer. There is certainly a debate to be had about that and there are a lot of valid arguments on both side, but even the most jaded music listener has to agree that when you move out of the Carly Rae Jepsens and Justin Biebers of the industry, there are a lot of people underneath the surface of the genre that still make compelling, pop-driven music.

In the eyes of many, Amanda Palmer is a perfect example of someone who fits that bill. Palmer, one of the two members of the dark cabaret group The Dresden Dolls, has found some measure of success with a solo career. Her 2008 solo debut, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, earned some chart success and a positive response from critics, not to mention adding to her loyal fanbase; however, a bitter dispute with her record label over their distaste for her looking like a normal human being and not a rail-thin model led her down the path of self-release. Palmer started up a Kickstarter campaign and received almost $1.2 million from dedicated fans, compared to the $100,000 she was seeking, the result is her latest album, Theatre of Evil, with which she attempts to break the mold of pop music, not to mention the traditional avenue through which popular music is made and distributed.

After a brief little opening in German introducing Palmer and her new backing group The Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre of Evil launches into the cheekily-titled “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen).” The lavishly-produced track has a massive, all-encompassing sound to it. With a thunderous drumbeat propelling the wall of sound that forms the backbone of the song, Palmer has an incredibly powerful opener to immediately grab the listener’s attention. The song is impossible to deny for its sheer musical power. And then just like that, the album switches gears with “The Killing Type.” The song starts off with Palmer singing over a relatively bass line by Jherek Bischoff, and it seems as if we’re going to get a more stripped-down track. But Palmer has more than that ready for us, and by the second chorus we’re fully immersed in her musical world, which is always a much more complex place than first guess would reveal.

While there is a definite appeal to the social media themes of “Smile,” it is “The Killing Type” where Palmer’s lyrical talent really comes on display for the first time on this album. The song is a disturbing ode to being frustrated with emotional distance in a partner. The song even goes meta as the subject claims that she couldn’t kill someone even if it softened the heart of her beloved, “I can say it in a song/and I’m saying it now.” By the end of the song though, it takes on a more ominous tone that makes you wonder if perhaps the singer really doth protest too much. Throughout the album, Palmer has an ability to weave her poetic prowess with pop culture references both current (Instagram) and dated (Moscow on the Hudson and) in such a way that they don’t feel dated in any way; in one moment she gloriously combines a reference to Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and Showtime’s The L Word. At the same time, she’s tackling some of the same topics that her more well-known pop contemporaries are taking on, but she does so in a way that leaves all those contemporaries in the dust.

One of the early highlights of the album is “Grown Man Cry.” There are other songs that have tackled the ploy that some men use of being sensitive to hide a lack of true emotional depth, but Palmer takes it on in such an evocative way. It’s made all the more effective with the weary, resigned tone in Palmer’s voice as she intones “We are standing on the corner, and you’re throwing down the gauntlet/it is not a life decision, we just need to pick a restaurant.” That paints a very clear and poignant picture of a relationship without the need to spell it out.

The same can be said of the brilliant lyrics in “The Bed Song,” which traces the rise and fall of a relationship from being “friends in a sleeping bag” to young love on an apartment futon, a proper bed in a growingly-distant condo all the way through to a final resting place. I guarantee that you will not hear a song like this anywhere on the radio, and that is absolutely criminal; lines such as “All the money in the world won’t buy a bed so big and wide/to guarantee that you won’t accidentally touch me in the night” are stunning in their emotional sharpness, made all the more painful with Palmer’s soft delivery or the song. And that’s one of the things makes this album such a wonderful one. Pop music is desperately crying out for someone to make music in the genre that is not only accessible, but emotionally and intellectually challenging. Palmer does this in a way that makes it seem easy.

It’s not just about the lyrics, though. As radiant as the lyrical content is, without the proper musical tone Palmer would just be a poet with a great voice. The music of Theatre Is Evil incredibly wide-ranging on a stylistic level, but never loses coherency for the sake of its twists and turns. She is able to take her sound and expand and build on it, diversifying into surprising, yet never unsuccessful, ways. Shades of rock, punk, classical music, alt-rock, goth, new wave and more weave their way in and out of the fifteen songs on the album. Some of the influences are overt references, such as when the famous riff from The Knack’s “My Sharona” makes an appearance in “Melody Dean” right along with a direct lyrical reference to the song. It’s a playful reference and Palmer threads her needle with other influences as well; some are remarkably easy to pick out (the Tori Amos feel of “Trout Heart Replica” is hard to deny), while others are much more subtle. But in all instances, this isn’t just a singer aping the sound of other artists; this is Palmer combining sounds to create a wholly-unique, emotionally captivating album. It entertains and hits all the right notes while at the same time challenging the way we think about popular music.

Standout Tracks: “The Killing Type,” “Do It with a Rockstar,” “Want It Back,” “Grown Man Cry,” “The Bed Song”

Skippable: None

Amanda Palmer raised $1.2 million dollars on Kickstarter for Theatre Is Evil, raising the bar for self-released music but setting the bar remarkably high for herself as well in order to deliver. It's safe to say that her fans got every penny's worth. Theatre Is Evil is alternative pop at its finest, with Palmer's exceptional lyrical skill combining with a constantly-changing but never jarring sound. This is music that never alienates the listener but yet never dumbs itself down either; it manages the rare feat of being musically accessible and yet intellectually and emotionally challenging. It may not quite be for everyone, but even those who are put off by Palmer's non-traditional style will find something to appreciate somewhere in the album. It's a tour de force and makes a strong end-run toward the top albums of 2012.

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Amanda Palmer, Jeremy Thomas

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