The Twilight Singers
or someone with my musical tastes, the 90's had very little to offer. One exception was Cincinnati's Afghan Whigs—a Sub Pop signing that quickly outgrew the label's early typecasting (and Jack Endino's wall-of-shite production), stamping out a raw yet grandiose rock sound informed by generous doses of Midwestern soul and hefty masculine heartbreak. The focal point was always frontman Greg Dulli's lyrics, etching a litany of life's loves and woes across the Whigs' heavy, percussive sound like razor scars on an embittered wrist. With Gentlemen, the band created rock's most harrowing break-up album, chronicling the dissolution of a love affair with a documentarian's unflinching eye. Black Love deepened the sonic layers, piled on black-light and smoke, and broadened the scope of the group's lens to examine the decay in relationships of a non-sexual nature. With 1965, the band took a left turn that seemed bizarre to some but delighted others (OK, me and various ex- and current girlfriends, mostly)—the world's ultimate comedown band getting baked and recording the soundtrack to the party the night before it all started to fall apart.
Since the slow dissolve of the Whigs, frontman Dulli has gone through dislocation (LA to New Orleans, though he still owns two bars in the former), serious cocaine abuse (Powder Burns, as if that weren't enough of a hint on its own, features a CD booklet with a map of Colombia), and probably more available females than you'd care to consider. He also made a shockingly wonderful album, the first Twilight Singers record Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers, a near-perfect collaboration between himself, Harold Chichester, and Hull stoners Fila Brazilia. That album unfolded like a rose in the balmy fall of 2000, combining Dulli's usual self-laceration with sensual, lush textures and the odd Hot 97 beat. Rock's poet of blistering love-born bitterness in makeout album shocker! Believe it—I've seen it work on more available females than I care to consider. Since then, Dulli swore off music, only to subsequently reconvene the Twilight Singers with a whole new supporting cast for 2003's snoozy Blackberry Belle, claiming that the muse had returned. Unfortunately, that record was more the sound of a man pilfering his own past, desperate for ideas, than that of someone generally inspired by notions of a fresh variety. Their covers album, She Loves You was loads more enjoyable, but only deepened the sense of fear that the man had simply run out of new musical and lyrical concepts.
Powder Burns conclusively proves it. Sounding (at best, mind you) like an uninspired Afghan Whigs tribute band, it recycles motifs, melody lines, production tricks, and lyrics from the back catalog. Part of the problem lies in the production—it's far too muddled, loud, and flat—but even the most gifted producer would have trouble making a good album out of the Dulli-by-numbers on display here. "Situation dire," he sings on "Bonnie Brae" (hey, it's no fucking "Annie Mae") and it couldn't be more true. Almost bald-faced in its self-referential audacity, there are moments of recycling here ranging from the minor (his reference to two Congregation songs in the title track, the Beatles bite on "Forty Dollars") to the unforgivable—the breakdowns in "There's Been an Accident" and "Underneath the Waves" will be suspiciously familiar to those who've listened to Black Love, "Powder Burns" sways almost exactly like "My Curse," and "The Conversation" is just a half-assed version of "Into the Street." Several tracks—"I'm Ready" and "Forty Dollars" among them—contain acutely unpleasant vocal effects, perhaps to mask the damage done by years of unchecked alcohol, drugs, and cigarette use. Either way, it sounds like the mike is in the toilet, no doubt with Dulli soon to follow. On these songs and several others, the band try to bludgeon you with aggression and machismo like "Honky's Ladder" did, but where that pummeled with the funk, these just pile on the junk. The end result is close to, well, grunge—and the Whigs ruled my 90's because they never really were grunge. Sure, they used distortion and bleed-through sonics, but all in the service of the righteous rhythm section of John Curley and the drummer-of-the-week. The walls of brackish noise on songs like the title track and "Dead to Rights" do no one any good—it's just another trick to cover up the lack of new growth.
The absolute nadir of Powder Burns (although the title track comes close) arrives with the most hook-laden song, "My Time (Has Come)" which wants to rip off "Going to Town" the way that song ripped off "Superstition," but ends up sounding like post-grunge cock-rock (see Velvet Revolver). Oh, and yes, he's totally using the term hooride in it, though it's written "who ride" in the lyric book. But worse is yet to come—there are lyrics on here that definitely cross the barrier Dulli has always tiptoed around, the one between wounded generalization of women and outright misogyny. The man has always been a bit of a bruiser when it comes to the ladies, but there is simply no excusing lines such as "on the floor / Like a beautiful whore," or "with your best laid plans, push and pull like a man / With your mouth sewn shut, like a dream." I mean, exactly what the fuck is that supposed to mean? Because any way I try to wrap my "little mind" around it, it still sounds like something to put the oink back in sexist pig.
The most frustrating thing about Powder Burns is that all of the elements that usually work for Dulli and whomever he's roped into recording are present on the album, but none of them spark fire. It careens between heavy and soft in that post-Pixies manner, opens up to allow noirish keyboards and cascading strings to intrude in the spaces between choruses and songs, and contains all the trademark flourishes that made those 90's Whigs LPs sound so dense and provocative. However, underneath all of that were some actual tunes. Powder Burns manages to turn those virtues into vices—stripping away the surface reveals nothing more than stitched-together fragments of previous Dulli outings disguised as new material. And when all that is present are textures and studio trickeries, I find the quirks and tics that made the Whigs (and the first TS record) so distinct are pretty bloody annoying with nothing to support them. What's left, to honor the great fanzine, is nothing but "Fat Greg Dulli"—the boy that won our hearts by being the poster-child of excess, now rapidly losing them by decaying into bloated self-caricature.