Friday, February 27, 2009

Twilight Singers. Powder Burns (One Little Indian, 2006)

"I got love for sale/ Come on, get some/ Before it gets stale."

Greg Dulli is a a pretty sinister dude. The man's got some demons, and I'm not so sure he's fighting 'em so much as inviting 'em down to the neighborhood joint for a few drinks and maybe some 9-ball. In many ways the embodiment of male braggadocio curdled and turned sour, Dulli nevertheless possesses a powerful charisma and charm, a swagger and stride equally alluring and offputting. He's a complex kid, brooding and dreadful, seemingly comforted by his dark places.

A lot of Dulli's pull comes from his voice, of course: the ex-Afghan Whig is blessed with a singular set of pipes, capable of soul-stirrer falsetto croons and gutbucket growls, his range matched by his ability to fiercely emote and vividly convey impressions and moods. In the Whigs, Dulli used his voice to meld grunge-inflected indie rock with Stax and Motown soul, and in so doing created one of the most enduring, recognizable sounds of the decade. Whether you loved their dirty blue-eyed r'n'b stylings or looked askance at their often over-the-top posturing, the Afghan Whigs sounded like no one else.

Throughout the Whigs' '88 to '98 career, you could sense Dulli's attempts to draw closer and closer to making an honest-to-God r'n'b album, not simply a collection of soul songs wrapped up in rock trappings. They lovingly covered TLC's "Creep," and put out an entire EP -- Uptown Avondale -- of Stax and Motown tunes. Their last album, the exceptionally underrated 1965, was probably the purest distillation of Dulli's ambitions with the Whigs, a scorching set of driving, pulsing songs informed by urban radio and New Orleans jazz. 1965 went pretty far in Dulli's chosen direction, but not quite far enough.

So the Afghan Whigs broke up, and Dulli put together the Twilight Singers. His second band relies far more on beats and electronics, essentially aping the neo-funk perfected by Prince in his '80s heyday, but with an emphasis on the shady side of town, the murky, best-hidden depths of the human psyche, and the poisonous potentialities of desire and infatuation. Over four albums, beginning with 2000's Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers and including one all-covers collection (She Loves You, which featured takes on Marvin Gaye, Mary J. Blige, and Skip James, among others), Dulli has satisfied his soul and r'n'b leanings, sometimes nailing it, sometimes not, but nearly always managing to entertain.

2006's Powder Burns is the Twilight Singer's fourth proper LP, and like its predecessors, treads emotional ground few would willingly choose to tread. Dulli continues to expand upon the themes he's been haunting for years: dependency, addiction, abuse, desire, all entrenched in thumping, soaring compositions, smoldering to the point of combustion. Throughout the album, guitars slash and grind, anchored by insistent beats and rhythms, melodies hung on butcher's hooks.

For every riff-driven jam like the towering Bonnie Brae or the rushing "Underneath the Waves," there's a stomping monster like Forty Dollars, a frightening ode to desperation and regret, Dulli taunting/pleading, "Mangy dog without a collar/ Buy me love for forty dollars," offering the brutal equation, "Love don't mean a thing/ but two AM and a telephone ring," before lifting and twisting the Fab Four to sneer, "She loves you, yeah yeah yeah," with all the contempt and ill-will he can muster.

Elsewhere, Candy Cane Crawl might be the best song Dulli's ever dragged to the surface, a devastating moebius strip of a composition that endlessly repeats its melody and lyrics, a serpent perpetually eating its own tail. "Who loves you true?/ But they'll just forget it, they'll just forget it/ That shit'll twist your little mind if you let it/ Believe me," warns Dulli. The melody -- slithering, dragging its feet, in no rush to get to its bad end -- is hypnotic, fed by a subtle snare-kick combo and flickering organs.

Greg Dulli can be a bit much, but here he's found his perfect musical vehicle. An outlet for his soul obsessions, he can fully explore the musical styles that the Afghan Whigs only let him dabble in. And If Powder Burns was what he had in him from the get go, then we can be thankful that he found the Twilight Singers. This is good stuff, dark as pitch but highly compelling, a long stare into a deep hole.