13 Houses and the Mermaid plunged listeners into a world of repressed and haunted memory; A Hundred Years delved into fairy tales. On Dolls Come to Life, Joe Frawley sidesteps into a forest of dark whimsy with the aid of Chicago vocalist Michelle Cross. The turn is not unexpected, but its effectiveness is a true surprise. The gothic sensibility will appeal to fans of Emilie Autumn, while the construction of tracks is reminiscent of Kate Bush and the vocal delivery of Tori Amos. These are hard shoes to fill, but few have come this close, and it’s heartening to hear a modern take on the ethereal.
The stated concept is that “dolls come to life when you leave the room”. These particular dolls are more like those of Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay than those of “Toy Story” and “Ted”. These dolls are not out to cause harm; they simply wish to exercise their porcelain heads, and perhaps to pirouette. The doll room is brought to life through curious constructs ~ music boxes, distant parties, passing cars, snatches of old songs (including “Que Sera Sera”, “My Favorite Things”, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep”). Cross’ voice is echoed, stuttered and looped. Frawley surrounds her with electronic accoutrements like glittering accessories for a handmade moppet. Not every track contains obvious vocals; some are littered with vocal fragments like glass debris. “Dolls Come to Life – Part 2” is particularly effective, a collage of spoken word that includes the truncated child’s chant, “ashes, ashes”, which feels uneasily incomplete even after it is finished.
The specific subject matter may vary – broken hearts, marionettes, Christmas – but the collaborators hold tight to the dreamlike mood. The album is a bit too dark to be fully nostalgic, but its mysterious allure is its edge. This is not the childhood most people experienced; it’s the childhood that unfolded under their beds and behind their closet doors. Some may think it benign, others slightly sinister; it all depends on what one thinks of cracked dolls, of eyes suddenly flying open. Coraline would like it, but she’s brave. For many strange children, the proximity of strangeness is a comfort, and for this reason it’s easy to imagine this album being not only liked, but cherished, held to the chest like a suddenly shattered doll. “No More Dollies” and “My Favorite Things” are the obvious singles (and clearest homage to Tori), but the album works best as a whole: a tribute to the secret world caught only in our peripheral vision. (Richard Allen)