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Doll Parts: The Dresden Dolls open for Collective Soul.

Coin-Operated Band

Who sings that crazy song? It's the Dresden Dolls.

By Todd Inoue

LAST WEEK, I heard a Channel 104.9 DJ lead-in to the Dresden Dolls single "Coin-Operated Boy" with a cheeky warning. "Here's either the most loved or most hated song." For those unaware, "Coin-Operated Boy" is a piano and drums ditty about isolation cloaked in what best can be described as Weimarian punk cabaret. It is wholly original and stands out among the station's steady diet of alternative rock—which may explain why the track has received such an enthusiastically divisive response.

Dresden Dolls pianist and vocalist Amanda Palmer laughs when I tell her of the DJ's lead-in. To her, the song is much more than what detractors paint it. "From our fans, it's one of the favorites—universally—because everyone can grasp it," says Palmer, calling from her hometown in Boston. "The melody is memorable. It's one of those songs we can play for somebody's grandmother and somebody's kid, and they'll get it. It's not just a gimmick. It's not a fluff piece. It's got the whole bridge that reveals it's not just a girl who wants a coin-operated lover; it's a song about feeling alone—the impulse that's afraid of love or being intimate. That's the barb."

Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione started the band in 2000 after Viglione saw Palmer, a one-time street performer in Harvard Square, do a solo piece at a party. Together, they merged their interest in pre-Nazi Berlin (as famously reconstructed in Cabaret) with rock opera and Violent Femmes skiffle. Immediately, the duo stood out among the punk and bar bands—incorporating costumes, makeup and naked emotion into their concerts. Dresden Dolls fans returned the creativity by coming in evening dress and contributing performance pieces before, during and after a show.

"We've had everything from snake charmers to walking on glass, contortionists, poetry, origami," Palmer says. "In Maine, a group of kids constructed a set of Alice in Wonderland. We encourage it. We do everything we can do without pissing the club off. People are getting more organized through the beauty of the Internet. For me and Brian, it's wild and entertaining."

"Coin-Operated Boy" first made noise on college radio before receiving its first commercial spin in 2003 on Boston's WBCN. Since then, it's slowly spread westward. It hit No. 47 on Channel 104.9's year-end countdown and its jumped to No. 17 on its current playlist. The band is working on its second CD and is also involved in the production of a live musical based on Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum where the Dresden Dolls serve as the house band.

For new fans turned on to the Dresden Dolls through "Coin-Operated Boy," like Alice in Wonderland, they'll tumble through the rabbit hole into a lavish fantasyland where everybody is welcome.

"It was one of those turning points in the band," Palmer says about mainstream airplay. "It's one thing to play shows and have the hipster kids and art school kids and punk kids coming to our shows. That's expected. But to all of a sudden have single mothers who are 34 falling in love with the band? That's incredible. We didn't know you'd love our music but you're totally invited in.

"It's been beautiful to see the music appeal to a lot of people since it doesn't have its own genre. That's the advantage of it. By not really being anything specific, not belonging to some trend, we're afforded an opportunity to include basically everyone."

The Dresden Dolls perform at Channel 104.9'S Fourth Birthday concert on Friday, Jan. 28, at Zoe Nightclub with Collective Soul, By Divine Right and Dub FX.

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From the January 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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