Album review: Dolls on Fire - Ladies and Gentlemen...

As its title suggests, Ladies and Gentlemen... is an introduction, as well as a dialectic declaration of the gender wars we’ve been waging since we were knee-high in sandboxes. Dolls on Fire lets its geek flag fly on a brisk seven-song debut that’s heavy on hooks and harmonies, hearkening back to the (dis)comforts of adolescence.

Our guide on this synth-pop rollercoaster is Zach Hodson, who embraces his frontman role with the enthusiastic charm of a carnival barker and the hamminess of a Vegas showman. Rachel Jaggard is right there with him, sharing lead vocal duties or layering on confectionary harmonies. They are joined by the tight, muscular rhythm section of Mark Johnson and Michelle Bacon, who form a two-headed bass-and-drum monster.

There are swirling synths. There are crunchy guitars. There are layers upon layers of pop harmonies and new wave influences all around, as well as a heavy dose of intelligent nerd punk, ‘90s nostalgia, and lounge music theatricality.

It’s a bit like The Cars being driven by Neil Diamond, with early Weezer riding shotgun, and a bunch of Squirrel Nut Zippers in the backseat—particularly on tracks like “Give Me A Reason To Love,” “GFY (300 Hands),” and “Hosanna (On The Radio).”

“Hosanna” is the jungle-gym time-capsule anthem of the bunch, with its “na-na-na’s” and auto-tuned talkbox vocals, theremin, and references to Atari, Ninja Turtles, Gwar, Hot Topic, and ear gauges. When Hodson swears, “That bitch is on the radio!”, it’s at once a kiss-off, dumbfounded disbelief, and begrudging pride.

The girls get their rebuttals too, as Jaggard narrates “Minotaur,” a torch song for mythical wintry forests after dark. “Jem Vs. The Volcano” is a call-and-response adventure between Hodson and Jaggard of its titular heroine, who evades tormentors by escaping into her imagination. She declares that “these should be damn good times for me!” It’s manic and melancholic and carthartic for Jem, and for us listeners too.

Beneath the humor and whimsy is the frustration of adolescence. The finely-tuned duet “A Boy Like Me” pleads, “Would you wait for me? Would you dare to see / The celebration that is me? The transformation that will be / From a boy like me?”

Similarly, “No One Will Love You Unless You’re A Man” implores, “Don’t be a boy, child, please be a man” and presents the crux of the battle between the fairer and rougher sexes: “Take all your regrets, darling / Set them three by three / Multiply and see / All the pain that you caused for me.”

So it goes with the battle between boys and girls. Dolls on Fire excavates the long passage from youth to adulthood and rappel the large chasm between ladies and men. For as long as we can remember, we’ve been fascinated and frustrated by the opposite sex. Ladies and Gentlemen... frames the gender war in the fun and fantasy of the farther recesses of our early memory and imaginations, reminding us of the pain and wonder of growing up.

Join Dolls on Fire with The Electric Lungs, The Sexy Accident, and Deco Auto this Saturday at Club 906. The group will be playing at 10:00 after The Electric Lungs.

 --Vi Tran 

Vi Tran is a singer-songwriter, actor, and arts advocate who plays his own songs in Vi Tran Band and other people's songs in Hot Caution.

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