- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The 75 or so curious souls who turned up at Iota Club and Cafe Monday night to catch the Dresden Dolls, a piano-drums duo that’s the buzz of Boston, will remember the floodlight.

In a move straight out of Karen Finley’s shock-art playbook, the floodlight was placed strategically under singer Amanda Palmer’s keyboard to shine below her waist for the entire show.

Possibly some missed it; maybe they couldn’t get past Miss Palmer’s and drummer Brian Viglione’s pantomime-white face paint and black lipstick.

If none of these Ziggy-Stardust-meets-the-White-Stripes visual cues was an attention-grabber, the Dolls’ music sure was: a schizoid cocktail of tiptoeing piano jingles and furious punk.

For 90 minutes, the Dolls shared twisted little tales of statutory rape (“Missed Me”), goth-teen angst (“Girl Anachronism”) and mechanical sex (“Coin-Operated Boy”).

Miss Palmer is an interesting tangle of disparate influences, a singer who draws emotional juice from female greats such as P.J. Harvey and Patti Smith (the brittle “Half Jack” lifts the pre-chorus from “Because the Night”) but a pianist trained on show tunes and Weimar cabaret music.

Judging from one of the Dolls’ as-yet-unreleased new songs played Monday, she also has studied Paul McCartney’s left hand on “Lady Madonna.”

The highlight of the set came as Miss Palmer stepped out of the floodlight, as it were, and Mr. Viglione picked up an acoustic guitar for a stunning cover of “Port of Amsterdam,” a song written by the late Belgian vocalist Jacques Brel that David Bowie covered in 1973.

Given the relative popularity of the White Stripes, today’s archetypal bassless duo, there’s no reason the Dolls won’t bubble eventually from the indie-rock underground into the mainstream.

However, the Stripes have tapped into the most perdurable vein of American rock, the blues. The Dolls’ brand of cabaret punk may not suit all tastes.

I’m reminded of Mr. McCartney’s dip into music-hall, “Honey Pie,” a one-off eccentricity from “The White Album.” Time will tell if the Dresden Dolls can hang an entire career on it.

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