Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Headphones: The Gutter Twins' Saturnalia

It’s the Fall of 1996, and my favorite albums are The Afghan Whigs’ cinematic Black Love and Screaming Trees’ psychedelic Dust. How could I know that one day these soundtracks to my college commutes would one day collide on “Idle Hands”, the first Gutter Twins single? It sounds just like I would’ve hoped – a swirling, dramatic, baroque, swaggering beast...sort of. It also kind of sounds like The Cult made a song for a horror movie tie-in...and the chorus isn’t that great. Everything about The Gutter Twins looks good on paper. Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli are both booze-swilling, hard-living, recovering-smack-addict Grunge survivors...or were; they’re now “elder statesmen” who've hit bottom and are wise enough to know not to fall back down the rabbit holes they once sang about so vividly. They are, essentially, what Layne Staley wishes he had lived on to be, and they know this, happier now knowing that their comparative “lack of success” (if you can say that about men able to have 20-year music careers) probably saved their souls. All of this gets funneled into their songwriting, long on brilliant noir lyricism full of Catholic guilt and nailed to sweeping gothic arrangements. Their union as The Gutter Twins was a match made in the darkest corner of heaven.

Or at least that’s the way I hoped this would end. You see, with Dulli’s recent Twilight Singers albums, I like the songs but I’ve never been crazy about the production and the mix. His albums have been way too clean for the vibe of the music, with the vocals way too out front. Lanegan on the other hand has had all that worked out, but his melodic sense isn’t necessarily his strong suit, instead preferring to lean on rough, bluesy atmosphere. So, where’s the problem, right? Shouldn’t The Gutter Twins work if Dulli just writes songs for Lanegan to sing? Well, yes. And Saturnalia, while not the sinister masterpiece their fans would beg for, succeeds way more than it falters. “Idle Hands” really isn’t that bad – it’s actually pretty good – but as is the case with most of the album, Lanegan’s singing saves the day. “The Stations” opens the album with a straight duet, a perfect hybrid of their sounds and sensibilities, allowing you a brief high as you think that maybe this is really going to be ‘it’, that album you’ve been waiting for. But then “God’s Children” comes through, and it’s basically a Twilight Singers track with Lanegan singing backup on the chorus; don’t get me wrong, it’s a good song, but this album is supposed to be about the two of them together, and to lose that so early is a minor misstep. “All Misery/Flowers” recovers though, in a most strange way – by evoking Tricky (and not for the only time). Lanegan presents a cyclical blues lament, purposefully staying off the beat, and creating a tension which Dulli pulls along when he shows up halfway through.

Dulli must’ve been listening to late period Beatles while he was writing his songs, and his lifts produce a few of the worst and best moments on the album. His slow-burning solo “I Was In Love With You” is just the kind of song that doesn’t fit here, betraying the mood of the rest of the album with out-of-place keyboard work. On the other hand, “Circle The Fringes” is the type of ballad he excels at, beginning as an evil-twin take on Side Three of The White Album, before being shocked to life by a stuttering guitar, just in time for Lanegan to growl. The great “Bete Noire” recalls another 60’s supergroup – Blind Faith – filtering the melody of that band’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” through Lanegan’s lighter moments on the Trees’ Dust, held high by spry electric piano.

As on the opening two tracks, the duo’s religious dilemmas provide a fertile lyrical source; the acoustic gospel soul of “Who Will Lead Us” produces one of Lanegan’s most nuanced vocal performances. One of the best songs, “Seven Stories Underground”, returns to Tricky’s deconstructed Blues-Hop shuffle, with Lanegan intoning “Heaven is quite a climb”. Further on, the rush of “Each To Each” manages to be quite infectious despite its thin “1979” machine beat and a looping guitar figure that sounds like that Sting sample on Nas’ “The Message”. Saturnalia closes with “Front Street” which admittedly begins too naked, just the duo and an acoustic guitar, and the lyrics aren’t as strong as they should be for an arrangement like that. But as the song builds, it’s not in a heavy-handed way, it’s methodical and considered, and the song gains power from the steady roll. As the music swells, the former trouble-making Rock veterans sing, “We’re gonna have some fun, son”, and you realize that, with a twinkle in their eyes and mischievous smirks on their faces, they might be singing to each other.

"All Misery/Flowers" [video]

"Idle Hands" [live on Letterman]

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