Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra
Theatre is Evil
8 ft. Records
I'll admit it. I'm late to the Amanda Palmer party. By the time I discovered The Dresden Dolls, they were already finished. I do not follow her Twitter. I've never seen her live, and only caught a few of her performances on YouTube. I do know that she is married to one of my favorite authors and that she is respected by other people that I respect. But what really grabbed my attention, and the attention of the rest of the world apparently, was the Kickstarter project that funded Theatre is Evil.
After tiring of dealing with record companies, Amanda took her proposal directly to the fans. Depending on the amount they wanted to pledge, fans would receive everything from a digital download to a personal visit from Amanda. Thanks to social networking and an intriguing product, she far exceeded her initial goal. And now we have the initial result to review.
The Grand Theft Orchestra definitely puts on a show here, and Theatre is Evil is structured as such, complete with an introduction and intermission. While all of the songs stand on their own, experiencing the album in its entirety adds to the overall enjoyment. I could talk about each song, but we'd be here for hours. Instead, let me hit a few highlights.
Palmer embraces her Internet community in many ways, most notably by using a popular message board reply in one of her song titles, the poppy "Smile (Pictures or it Didn't Happen)." She goes delightfully meta in "The Killing Type" by letting the listener know she knows that she is just a character in a song. "Do it With a Rockstar" is a discourse on the loneliness of celebrity in a detached culture wrapped up in a sing-along love song to '70s glam rock. Each of these songs is a loud, raucous endeavor, taking full advantage of the Orchestra -- Michael McQuilken, Chad Raines and Jherek Bischoff -- playing all variety of instruments. Other songs range from bouncy pop to low key ballads to retro rock.
However, I think my favorite song is the ultra-personal "The Bed Song," which features Amanda and a piano, as she tells the story of a couple through their beds, from a sleeping bag, through a futon and king sized bed, to a pair of graves under a tree. "And I lay there wondering what is the matter/Is this a matter of worse or of better/You took the blanket/So I took the bedsheet/But I would have held you/If you'd only... let me." Descriptive and sad, it haunts you long after it ends.
As a whole, the album is an epic performance. That's not to say everything is perfect. Taken on their own, some of the songs do not grab me for repeated listens. "Bottomfeeder" goes on too long for my tastes, and while a decent song, "Olly Olly Oxen Free" doesn't seem to fit in with the overall performance aesthetic as a final track. I was expecting a grand finale to bookend the introduction, I suppose.
I've listened to this album in almost every possible scenario, from the sub-par computer speakers as I first streamed my review copy, to the 500-watt surround sound system in my living room, to my better than average car stereo. But the best way to experience Theatre is Evil, in my experience, is in the intimate setting of a good pair of headphones with your eyes closed. The musical landscape is created through a sublime combination of highs and lows, melody and discord, with deft use of stereo separation. I can only imagine the type of show they put on live. Hopefully a concert video will be released after the tour is over.
I sat down to write this review three different times. It hasn't been easy putting this together. It's not that I couldn't find the right words; it's just that there are so many different concepts flying around that it is difficult to put them in the right order. Let's face facts. Chances are, if you are a Palmer fan, you already have this album and have listened to it multiple times. If you aren't yet, there is nothing standing in your way of sampling the goods. She will email you a three-song sampler for free, and the entire album is on her site as a "pay as much as you want" model. Grab a copy. Listen to it. Revel in the theater of it. Pass it on.