Paper Dolls 

Sparks
(self-released)

Paper Dolls has been playing around town, in one form or another, for the past few years, but Sparks is the group's first release. The band split up and then reconfigured with a new lineup in 2009, with singer and pianist Jenn Malzone and cellist Cathie Degler remaining from the original incarnation. Malzone's smirking, no-bullshit tone fits in nicely on these piano-and-cello arrangements, just like it does in the power-pop explosions of her other band, Tight Pants Syndrome. In Paper Dolls, however, she's able to hold the center of these songs with vocals and with driving piano performances. Malzone plays more like a well-practiced accompanist than a virtuoso, and these songs benefit from this deft restraint, which leaves room for Degler's scraping and soaring cello lines.

Given the somewhat limited palette (acoustic piano, cello, bass guitar and drums), the quartet tries on quite a few different styles in the course of this seven-song CD. The girl-group harmonies on "Pollution" sidle up nicely with the loping rhythm and drummer Sarah Ross' cymbal work, and the jaunty piano chords that guide the opener, "Middle Class Fashion," are straight-ahead and addictive. The layered vocal parts and shifting rhythms on "30 Thousand" become a bit torn and tattered as the song progresses, but it's a reminder that the band's ambitious orchestral flourishes require a precision that few other bands even approach.

If, in the '90s, the girl-with-piano setup led to countless Tori Amos and Fiona Apple comparisons, in this millennium Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls stands as the high priestess of theatrical piano rock. And sure enough, Palmer's dark and snarky cabaret style shows up from time to time on Sparks, especially on the rousing "First Draft." But it is to Paper Dolls' credit that no single style or influence dominates this first outing. 

— Christian Schaeffer

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