The Dresden Dolls arrived on the Boston club scene five years ago like a breath of fresh, if freakish, air. The piano-drum duo commandeered the local Brechtian punk-cabaret niche -- an anemic genre, to say the least, until Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione came along. They made a charming, intense record and a fan of Trent Reznor, who invited the Dolls to tour with Nine Inch Nails last year. But red mouths and striped stockings only take you so far in the music business. Likewise hyper-stylized songs about surgical blunders and inflatable boyfriends. The question looming over the Dresden Dolls has always been whether the duo would be able to transcend the very shtick that distinguished them in the first place.
With the release today of ''Yes, Virginia," the Dolls' sophomore album, the answer is an unqualified yes. Palmer -- songwriter, piano-pummeler, and possessor of one of rock's most dramatic altos -- is still poster vixen for ''the kind of girl who gets her slings and arrows from the dumpster/ the kind who tells you she's bipolar just to make you trust her," as the artist announces in ''Dirty Business."
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But she's something else now, too: mistress of pop-rock. Where ''Coin-Operated Boy" and ''Girl Anachronism" (from the Dolls' 2004 debut) were quirky and captivating, ''Yes, Virginia" is a startlingly well-written, beautifully crafted collection. It's still weird and licentious, but by some marvel of musical alchemy (or possibly talent and hard work) Palmer's songwriting has grown simpler and deeper, more concise and more sprawling, all at once. Drummer Viglione, who once described his role in the band as that of a wall off of which Palmer's songs bounce and reverberate, accommodates his partner's evolution with his own smashing, teetering cache of rhythms.
Palmer grafts a tragically sinister perspective onto an anthemic chorus in ''Sex Changes," a powerhouse album-opener that probes the fallout of gender reassignment. ''First Orgasm," a desolate ballad, is thrilling and alarming in its intimacy. If ''My Alcoholic Friends" sounds a little too jaunty and jovial, consider the needs of a protagonist who's ''trying hard not to be ashamed not to know the name of who is waking up beside me."
Although she may sound it on paper, Palmer is neither sexual obsessive nor social deviant. She's just an honest chronicler whose poetry is more riot grrrl than Lilith Fair and who is, in stark contrast to most of her peers, fearless. The album's title is discreetly buried in the middle of ''Mrs. O," a shuffling, '50s-inflected ode to truth and innocence, and it's the gray area between the two that Palmer explicates with empathy and zeal available only to those who straddle many worlds. For proof, look no further than ''Backstabber," where she confesses to a ''greedy little fit haver/ God, I feel for you, fool."
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Producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie captured the Dolls' energy in all its pungent, off-kilter glory for 12 consecutive tracks, at which point the album comes crashing to a bizarre conclusion with ''Sing." It defies reason that this earnest and lackadaisical invocation to join voices in unifying celebration -- an entirely unrepresentative song, and not a very good one -- was chosen as the album's lead single.
Happily, there are greater mysteries to plumb on this ambitious, expansive album.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.