Review: Amanda Palmer – “Forty-Five Degrees”

Amanda Palmer doesn’t waste much time getting going on her new record – and she doesn’t pull any punches.

On the first song out of the gate on Forty-Five Degrees: A Bushfire Charity Flash Record, which is available online now on Bandcamp, she adds several timely verses to a pristine yet stark (and, at times, rattling) rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things”. Her addenda are worth quoting in their entirety.

Rain never falling and whisked-away kittens
Evacuations and cars people live in
Kangaroos burning and birds with no wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Beautiful sunsets ironically colored
Homes with no power and kids with no mothers
Smug politicians with necks we could wring
These are a few of my favorite things

Boris and Megxit and Scotty and ISIS
Bushfires and wildfires and climates in crisis
Silver white icebergs that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things

When the dogs die, when the bees die
When I’m feeling blue
I’ll simply remember my favorite things –
Oh, no, I’ll be dead like you

This sentiment, this feeling that the world has gone off the rails and up in flames, pervades the record, which, as benefit offerings go, is pretty powerful stuff. Instead of half-heartedly tossing in some studio asides and B-sides, Palmer, no slouch, immersed herself in Australian culture, spoke with hundreds of residents and citizens, and soaked in all of that context as she toured the country around Christmas. The record was recorded quickly and released quicker.

But none of this feels slap-dash. A cover of Midnight Oil’s rather timely “Beds Are Burning” is roiling stuff, with Missy Higgins providing vocals. Palmer is backed by Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, with whom she has not recorded in more than a decade. Frequent collaborator Jherek Bischoff appears on bass and guitar. Palmer also presents a rather high-contrast cover of Midnight Oil’s “Truganini”.

The piano and Palmer’s pronounced projections are the details you’ll remember. On a cover of Emily Wurramara’s “Black Smoke”, her voice trembles as she coos in harmony with Clare Bowditch. The closing minute of the song, where multi-tracked vocals begin to ooze like syrup, hints at gospel incantation. Ted Egan’s “The Drover’s Boy”, a country ballad done here in folksy modes, and Australian band Goanna’s “Solid Rock”, a rock ballad dramatique, also ring of the moment.

Then there’s “Suck It Up, Buttercup”, an original composition Palmer wrote for the record. At nearly nine minutes, it is the record’s “biggest” track, and when Palmer, three-quarters of the way through, ups the volume and bellows, “I saw the world catch fire”, it’s not just prescient, it’s chilling.

With Forty-Five Degrees, Palmer has managed to tap into the emotional, even psychological, undercurrents of the Australian experience at this world-defining moment – and that’s an accomplishment surely worthy of the collection. She’s emotionally and technically engaged, as are her collaborators. And all of the proceeds go to a worthy cause — Firesticks Alliance, an Indigenous-led network re-invigorating and teaching cultural burning and land management.

“If Australia is the canary in the dark climate coal-mine,” Palmer wrote in the record’s notes, “I hope a bunch of artists making a response record like this, so fast and with such generosity, can provide a little crack of light.” Palmer’s response revels in the darkness more than the light, but that’s always what she’s done best. And she puts herself out there for Australia and all the socio-political implications raveled up with it in the current crisis. For a $5 download, what more do you want? – Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, Feb. 24, 2020


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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