Leave it to Greg Dulli to release an album on February 15th.
Dulli, the erstwhile Afghan Whigs frontman, and currently the leader of The Twilight Singers, partner in The Gutter Twins and occasional solo artist (and part owner of Echo Park’s Short Stop), has long since made firing off dispatches from the dark and damaged side of love his stock-in-trade. Just as many of his song-based personas find themselves arriving a day late and a dollar short, it’s fitting that The Twilight Singers’ latest, Dynamite Steps, arrived in stores the day after Valentine’s Day.
Heralding the occasion, TTS took Amoeba Records’ modest stage to perform a 30-minute set of mostly new material for anyone willing to fight L.A.’s infamous traffic in time for the advertised 6:00 PM performance (which actually started at 6:15 PM).
Dulli’s vocals sounded a bit rough through the opener, “Last Night In Town” (probably not coincidentally the opening track on Dynamite Steps), but in fairness, he’s never been categorized as a singers’ singer — much of his appeal has to do with his being a cocky, if love-crippled, Everyman – so the extra dosage of desert dehydration delivery he creaked through before settling in wasn’t exactly cause for alarm for the uninitiated. In fact, judging by those in attendance, it’s doubtful there was anyone in the crowd who wasn’t there on purpose, enthusiastic and expectant at the prospect of hearing something — anything — from TTS’ charismatic leader. Such is the Cult of Dulli — it’s almost more about the vibe than the goods.
TTS was originally a collaboration between Dulli, Howlin’ Maggie singer Harold Chichester and Shawn Smith of Brad and Satchel fame, picking up where the Whigs left off in 2000 with the very promising and forward-looking Twilight As Played By The Twilight Singers. When that partnership went sour (rumors cited a rent dispute, of all things, between Dulli and Smith), Dulli simply kept on truckin’ and rebooted TTS, bringing a denser and darker, Whigs-recidivistic sound to bear under the same banner in 2003 with Blackberry Belle. A flurry of releases followed in short order before TTS hit its stride 2006 with the near-perfect Powder Burns, accomplishing in just a few years what it took the Whigs over a decade to do.
Throughout, TTS’ lineup has fluctuated, and perhaps it’s been that open-ended and less stable environment which has encouraged Dulli (who’s helmed the producer chair on all TTS releases*) to bring in various friends and collaborators to fill in the blanks on any number of TTS tracks over the years.
Dynamite Steps is no exception, featuring appearances by the likes of Ani Difranco, fellow Gutter Twin Mark Lanegan and singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur, among others. Arthur, who contributed to a pair of songs on the new album, joined the band onstage at Amoeba after the opener (though other than “Never Seen The Devil” he sounded a bit off key and seemed to have some problems following along).
No matter what name he’s playing under or who he is playing with, Dulli has always had a penchant for peppering his live shows with medleys, covers and blasts from the past. Despite the obvious record-promoting benefit of filling such a short appearance with nothing but new material, Dulli stayed true to his live tradition and laced TTS’ Amoeba set with some familiar gems, including his paean to cocaine, “Forty Dollars” (from Powder Burns) and the refrain from Afghan Whig’s “Miles Iz Ded.” Though it seems a bit at-odds that Dulli, who’s not been shy in the media when distancing himself from his tenure in Afghan Whigs with a sort of “been there, done that” attitude, typically delivers a hearty helping of Whig’s material during TTS shows, it’s always well-received, and on this night was visibly appreciated by the audience, who understandably didn’t have much of a handle on the new, just-released songs.
Regardless, smiles abounded onstage and it was clear TTS were having fun showing off their new tunes, whether or not the lack of familiarity kept the crowd in attendance from being fully on board. Dulli has commented previously that he’s been sitting on the title Dynamite Steps for several years, waiting on just the right set of songs worthy enough to wrap the name around before breaking it out. Given that sentiment and the fact that it’s been nearly five years since the last TTS full-length release, it would seem that this album should be groundbreaking. It’s not. The same sound that’s defined everything from Blackberry Belle on is present throughout – a brooding formula full of misguided braggadocio — alternately a half a drink away from a bar fight or five minutes into the realization that the cold side of the bed is going to stay that way – remains the defining thread of their latest release.
Which is a good thing.
It’s often said that if something is not broken, don’t fix it. Watching The Twilight Singers in full effect a day after Valentine’s Day, you can’t help but hope that no one is going to fix Greg Dulli’s heart any time soon.
Broken or not, it’s working just fine.
*Dulli has also produced the Afghan Whigs’ albums, his solo album and co-produced the Gutter Twins’ Saturnalia.