Monday, March 16, 2009

Greg Dulli - The Emperor's New Clothes?

Greg Dulli is somebody I've struggled with, no matter what moniker he has recorded under (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins). Always well regarded by the critics, here was somebody that I was determined to get into. None of the Afghan Whigs stuff I heard particularly grabbed me. My main criticism, and it's not unique to Dulli, is that it all sounds the same. I'm not particularly fond of this voice and he tends to 'Dulli-cise' everything, no matter who he works with.

My ears pricked up when I heard he was to collaborate with Mark Lanegan, who I must admit I have slavishly followed for many years. The second Twilight Singers album, Blackberry Belle, was kindly given to me by a good friend of mine (a long-time Dulli fan). It's probably my favourite of all of Dulli's incarnations. The opening track, Martin Eden, sets the tone perfectly, with a great opening line - "Black out the windows, it's party time", accompanied by a foreboding arrangement. The next song, Esta Noche, turns a ringing phone into the basis for a song, and surprisingly, it works.

Teenage Wristband, is a thinly disguised Who homage and works quite well as a Baba O'Riley inspired anthem. It's at about this stage I find myself thinking about everything I had read about this guy and started to wonder where is the depth? I mean, the music is perfectly listenable but it doesn't really move me. And his voice doesn't do much for me either.

Other highlights of this album include Papillon, which glides along nicely on the wings of a banjo. The last track, Number Nine, features guest vocals from the aforementioned Mark Lanegan, and to my ears, stands apart from the rest of the album. Lanegan's unmistakable rasp gives this song real weight (and depth), and in fact he seems to get Dulli to raise his game as Dulli's vocals are probably the best on this album.

I was lucky enough to see the Twilight Singers around this time in Whelan's in Dublin and I found them quite refreshing. Greg was in a good mood and the gig was, for want of a better word... fun.

So it was with great anticipation I bought the Twilight Singers's follow up, She Loves You, a covers album featuring more contributions from Lanegan, and covering songs from Hope Sandoval, Bjork amongst others. The album is actually quite disappointing. Lanegan's contributions are barely audible on all but one track, Hard Time Killing Floor, which succeeds because it sounds like a cross between an old blues song (which it is) and a Lanegan solo track. It's different from anything else on the album, which is largely Dulli-led. The album splits between two types of song. Contemporary type songs (Feeling of Gaze, Hyperballad), which are kind of ok, but you wonder why they bothered, especially Feeling of Gaze, where Hope Sandoval's wonderfully langurous track is transformed into an acoustic dirge. Dulli also takes on traditional type songs (Strange Fruit, Black is the Colour of My True Love's Hair, Summertime) where you wish they didn't bother. The nicest thing I can say is that they bring nothing to these songs. Strange Fruit suffers most at their hands, but it's a song which should never be covered, nothing can top Billie Holiday's chilling version.

Traumatised by this album, Dulli and I remained on hiatus till I discovered the Stitch in Time EP, released some years later. It's dominated by a fantastic version of Live with Me by Massive Attack. This song features lead vocals from Mark Lanegan and is a wonderful plea to a lover which makes the hairs on the back of one's neck stand up. The other track on the EP aren't bad either.

This brings me to the much-talked about, much anticipated Gutter Twins album, Saturnalia, a full-scale collaboration between Dulli and Lanegan. Before you even get to the music, the album has a great cover, two deserted chairs and a stormy sky. This perfectly reflects the excellent music contained within. The album kicks off with The Stations, a foreboding Lanegan song which builds and builds to a climax and then dies gently away. God's Children gives Dulli a turn at the mic and picks up the pace a bit. All Misery / Flowers keeps up the intensity till The Body provides calmer fare, clearing the way for the massive rocker Idle Hands. Lanegan's robo-blues growl drives this track which is one of the heaviest things either of these guys have done in years. After this the album starts to tread water a little bit (relatively speaking) before picking up with I Was in Love with You, a Beatles-esque track sung by Dulli which works very well. Bete Noire is like a long-lost late period Screaming Trees track with Lanegan's voice backed up by accompanying vocals which are very reminescent of the Screaming Trees.

Each to Each, the second last track seems out of place here with it's cheesy keyboards, but the last song, Front Street is an emotional punch to the gut. Opening with birds singing, it's dominated by Dulli's vocals framed by an acoustic guitar, then little by little the other instruments come in to bring the song and album to an exhilarating end.

Seeing these songs live did not disappoint either, it was a great concert, but don't ever expect much on-stage banter from Lanegan! Their next gig is reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Adorata, an EP of covers and other odds and ends followed, which for the most part is excellent. The Jose Gonzalez cover, Down the Line, is not one of the better ones, with it's Bonnie Tyler style keyboards, but Deep Hit of Morning Sun (Primal Scream cover), Spanish Doors and We Have Met Before (the two originals) are excellent.

This post betrays my Lanegan obsession, and Dulli can only suffer by comparison. Good in small doses, maybe?