Amanda Palmer is probably best (or only) known as the frontwoman/pianist for the punk-cabaret-whatever group the Dresden Dolls. Through the band's two Roadrunner Records releases, Amanda has crafted out a voice and image for the Dresden Dolls. This leads to the obvious question: Why the need for a solo album? Was that drummer taking up too much stage? The reason was that originally Who Killed Amanda Palmer was meant to be a simple solo album, filled with tracks that Amanda had not placed drums with and recorded simply and inexpensively. That all changed (for better or worse) when Amanda was contacted by the man who would ultimately produce the album, Ben Folds. With Folds' input and assistance, the album quickly grew to orchestral proportions and took over a year to record in various states and was mastered four times before it was finally released.
Despite the Herculean effort this album took to release, many detractors will still ask what the difference is between this and a regular Dresden Dolls album. This difference comes in two distinct levels. The first, and more obvious, is the expanded instrumentation. Where the duet's last album, Yes Virgina, was very much stripped down to piano and drums, Who Killed stretches its legs musically with guitars, horns, synthesizers and pretty much anything Ben Folds could cram into a recording booth. There's many times this works to the album's advantage. The track "Runs in the Family" runs at a feverish march and as it reaches its zenith, a high-pitched tone comes in, increasing the frantic nature of the song to the point you can feel the tension and panic in the song. The horn section on "Leeds United" keeps the song bouncing along and brings it up to a level that piano and drums would not be able to reach on their own. Though it's not always to the albums benefit, when it works, the expanded instrumentation effectively accents the moods of a very emotional album.
The less obvious differentiation from Dresden Dolls albums is the lack of what Amanda would describe as "aggro" music, or the typically darker, angrier and more confrontational songs in the Dresden Dolls catalog. Gone are tracks like "Half Jack," "Missed Me" and (to a lesser degree) "Modern Moonlight," which sprinkled the first two albums with a dark sense of confrontation and anger. The closest you find to them on Who Killed is "Guitar Hero," which is a far cry from the ranting and screaming of "Half Jack." Instead Who Killed is filled with songs that embody the frustration, confusion and sadness that fans have associated with the band but without the outward anger. A fine example is "Runs in the Family," which deals with a common theme in Dresden Dolls albums -- family upbringing and the slew of long-term issues it can cause. While the song contains the frantic confusion of previous works, it lacks the dark anger that has made previous works so emotion but ultimately uneven and difficult on repeat listens.
The main piece of criticism for the album would be encapsulated with the phrase, "Self-aware does not equal good." This is never more evident than in the back-to-back bombs of "What's the Use of Wond'rin'?" and "Oasis." "What's the Use of Wond'rin'?" is originally from from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." Though I've never seen the original, it seems like the kind of song you'd see a mom or nanny or mother figure sing to a group of young girls who are confused about boys or who really want to get married. A few times in the song you hear just enough of the crack of Amanda's recognizable vocals to get the meaning, as if she's pushing through a fake porcelain facade. Still, the song itself is boring and generally unlistenable. "Oasis" is likely to be considered fair more offensive as it takes subjects like rape, abortion and general sexual assault and slaps them to a jaunty piano melody and crafts a little pop diddy. More offensive than the content is the horrid execution. Self-aware or not Amanda has always managed to get the emotion she's trying to convey in a song, whether it's anger, sadness, joy or fear. Taking a topic that has so many sides and emotions and castrating it by making it a pop diddy is something that seems too ironic for Amanda (which may explain why Folds pushed for it to be on the album).
Overall, Who Killed is an amazing album with a couple of very visible missteps. It's hard to say the album would have been better without Ben Folds involvement as much of the expanded musicianship and increased production works. Still, the album feels like no one knew where to draw the line. It feels like at some point someone should have gone, "Yes, the horns are good on 'Leeds United' but let's record the vocals clearly" (of course, this may have been done due to Palmer's vocal cords being strained and requiring surgery) or "Maybe we don't need the intro from 'Strindberg and Helium' on 'Strength Through Music'." But it seems no one did. While the flaws on the album are few, they are highly noticeable and really detract from what is, ultimately, an excellent album. While over-thinking and overproducing didn't kill Amanda Palmer, it sure seems to have tried.
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