[4 March 2008]
Hey, for all you Gen-X’ers who were weaned on these guys’ voices in the 1990s, chew on this notion for just a moment: the combination of these two gentlemen so intrepid in the background of our college heyday coming together to create a full-length album. We have Greg Dulli, the slovenly suave agent provocateur of alt-rock’s noir side, whose penchant for old soul and modern R&B helped him transform a song like “Creep” into a sinister come-on the girls in TLC never dreamed of conspiring. Then there’s Mark Lanegan, the brooding ex-frontman of the perennially underrated Screaming Trees whose outstanding solo albums pushed grunge’s branches on the blues and folk family trees well beyond their breaking points.
Here you have the authors of no less than four certified masterpieces of the 1990s (for those keeping score, that would be the Afghan Whigs back-to-back Elektra classics in 1993’s Gentlemen and 1996’s Black Love for Dulli and the Screaming Trees’ grossly underrated 1996 swan song Dust and 1994’s solo gem Whiskey for the Holy Ghost for Lanegan) returning to the intrepid record label that broke them (that be Sub Pop) to bring to fruition the storied collaboration born from a intentional rumor in 2002 and built upon through low-key cameos on each other’s records throughout the course of this past decade. If you had said that these two guys would start working together on music back in, say, 1998, you might’ve received more than a few raised eyebrows and perhaps a guffaw or two in spite being in agreement to how cool of a concept it would be to put them together in the studio.
But alas, it is the doggone truth, and given the case of the dark, albeit disparate, paths both Dulli and Lanegan continually travel down for lyrical inspiration, it is a match made in 120 Minutes heaven. For those aware of the pair’s previous collaborative efforts, which include Lanegan’s appearances on two releases from Dulli’s post-Whigs project The Twilight Singers including a transcendent cover of Massive Attack’s “Live with Me” from the Singers’ 2006 A Stitch in Time EP and Dulli’s stint as the piano player in Lanegan’s band during his 2004 tour behind his solo gem Bubblegum, which features Greg on two tracks, these two have some serious sonic chemistry. So much in fact, one wonders why they waited nearly 20 years into their respective careers to cut an LP together.
But when you think about it, the time couldn’t have been more perfect in the careers of both Lanegan and Dulli to finally make good on their partnership, considering the fact that each of these guys have reached high water marks as solo artists over the past five years, with Mark seeing Ballad of the Broken Seas, his critically-acclaimed duets album with former Belle & Sebastian chanteuse Isobel Campbell, receiving a coveted Mercury Prize nomination in 2006 and branching out into the realms of electronic music last year with his residency on the Soulsavers’ excellent Red Ink release It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land and Greg returning from some of the finest critical accolades of his career for the Twilight Singers’ ’06 offering Powder Burns.
However, if you are expecting something along the lines of the Screaming Whigs or the Afghan Trees, you are only about halfway there. Sure, the sonic ties to their old bands’ unique flavors can be heard in stitches throughout the course of Saturnalia’s dozen tracks, primarily due to the singers’ unmistakably iconic voices. But repeated listens to this wonderful record reveals a wealth of musicality more prominent than perhaps anything either Dulli or Lanegan have been attached to yet. Dulli may have jokingly dubbed the Gutter Twins as “the Satanic Everly Brothers”, and while nothing on here comes close to the saccharine rush of “Cathy’s Clown”, the fluid harmony by which they float from song to song throughout Saturnalia is undoubtedly reflective of Don and Phil, no doubt. Though the music here is indeed rooted in a sound that is clearly identifiable to the trademark signatures of both Dulli and Lanegan, Saturnalia triumphs in its attempts to make what was old feel so, so new once again.
The Gutter Twins utilize a top-choice crew of backup musicians and prolific cameo appearances from an array of peers as varied as can be expected from the likes of these two, including Desert Sessions guitar great Dave Catching, trip-hop queen bee Martina Topley Bird, Fountains of Wayne drummer Brian Young, alt-rock journeyman Troy Van Leeuwen and Alain Johannes and Natasha Schneider of Eleven to name a few. These two then parlay their iconic sound signatures into the realms of airy mountain folk (the haunting opener “The Stations”), bluesy gospel (“Seven Stories Underground”, which is very reminiscent of Lanegan’s work with Soulsavers), Pink Floydian space effects (“All Misery/Flowers”) and George Harrison-style Beatle-esque dramatics (“I Was In Love With You”). Other tracks, however, do come off highly reminiscent of both Dulli and Lanegan’s prior material. You would expect a track like “Idle Hands” to be a leftover from the last great Screaming Trees album that never happened, while something like “Each to Each” could’ve easily fell into place on the first Twilight Singers album.
Saturnalia’s final cut, however, the soulful, atmospheric “Front Street”, is clearly the album’s defining highlight and solidifies Dulli’s status as a crafter of some of the most incredible album closers in rock history, continuing in the tradition of previous Greg masterpieces like Black Love’s epic coda “Faded” and “Number Nine” from the Twilight Singers’ 2003 opus Blackberry Belle, which, too, featured Lanegan on backing vocals.
It might sound like a total cliché, but they really don’t make guys like Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan anymore in the world of alternative rock. Sure, there’s enough dark, brooding dudes out there in the modern music world to shake a guyliner pencil at. But guys like Dulli and Lanegan, they stumbled off the same barstool as gutter culture icons like Charles Bukowski and Jim Carroll. This means these dudes possess a kind of brooding, self-immolating machismo you could never get from guys who lived at home until they were 22 and have T-shirts for sale at Hot Topic who probably wouldn’t last a day on the road supporting the Gutter Twins.
In other words, Craig Finn would make a mighty fine breakfast nosh for these guys.