I Go Retro: Twilight… As Played By The Twilight Singers

Maybe he should change his name to Greg Quite-Interesting-Realli. Eh? Eh?

I really didn’t like Chris Cornell’s Scream. We’ve established that a couple of times before, and it’s been fun, but there’s really no need to beat that dead horse again, because it’s been lying in a field somewhere since it was leaked, and now it’s smelling really bad. Look at it, son – it’s decomposing! One thing I will say about it is that it’s probably a good thing that Cornell wasn’t afraid to swap genres for a lil’ bit. It’s a damn shame that his foray into blip-squeaky r’n’b was the aural equivalent of a man repeatedly digging into his own brain with an ice-cream scoop, slathering excrement all over it, and proceeding to eat his own poo-smeared brain, but that’s beside the point for now.

And that point is this: other singers from the 90s have briefly diverged from the path of rock’n’roll before him; the most obvious example being the somewhat threatening genius, Mark Lanegan. He delved into mild electronica once or twice on his Bubblegum album, before taking a far more convincing plunge into the genre on his collaboration with the Soulsavers, It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s The Way You Land. And that was a bloody fantastic record, from the opening hymn “Revival” to the closing strains of their cover of the Rolling Stones “No Expectations”. Admittedly, it was mostly of a piece with Lanegan’s own solo work – dour, hopeless blues – with the only change being the instrumentation, but it was a pleasant detour from the norm. Like using a different brand of bolognese sauce than your usual – sure, it’s technically the same meal, but any discerning consumer can tell the important differences.

Or something.

Lanegan’s Gutter Twin, Greg Dulli, has also explored the lands of Electronica in the past, in his case under his sometimes-guise of The Twilight Singers. Their debut record – made before it became Greg’s personal project, and including substantial contributions from Shawn Smith, Harold Chichester, and dub duo Fila Brazilia – was a break from Dulli’s spectacular work with the Afghan Whigs, moving away from sleazy, soulful guitar rock into sleazy, soulful folk electronica. Which sounds like poxy genre messiness, so I’ll try to describe it a bit more thoughtfully: now.

'Sa good album, y'know.

So yes, this is the Twilight Singers when they were a side project from Dulli’s work with the Whigs, and it shows: there’s a deliberate aversion to the hard rock and barely-in-tune histrionics of that band, a more thoughtful approach to the more sensuous side of Dulli’s songwriting, and a plan – albeit one that resulted in a studio bust-up – to share the stage with two other lead singers. It’s as ego-driven as any bloated, self-indulgent side-project you might care to mention, and you can tell it didn’t exactly pan out like Dulli had hoped. But – importantly – it works.

And it works because of Dulli. Not to discount the important contributions of his collaborators (or indeed, my own personal bias, seeing as Dulli’s the one I enjoy listening to), but it’s Dulli that ties the songs together, and gives the record what coherence it has. From the funky “Clyde”, to the restrained “King Only”, to the barely-a-song “Verti-Marte”, Dulli is the one constant, and the guiding hand of the project. So while “That’s Just How That Bird Sings” would be a very different song without Shawn Smith’s trademark falsetto – which sometimes verges on annoying, to be honest – Twilight is Dulli’s album, start to finish.

And fittingly, the start and finish are probably the strongest points of the album. It all kicks off with “The Twilite Kid” (video above), which is probably as close to Dulli’s regular sound as you’ll find on the album. Building up with some twinkling piano, bright acoustic guitar, and mildly trip-hop-styled drums, Dulli comes out swinging with the opening line, “Rock steady, your man is dead”. You’re immediately hooked, and it’s a wonderfully dynamic, dare I say, pretty, song; reasonably similar to “Teenage Wristband” off Blackberry Belle, but where that goes for bombast, “Twilite Kid” seems to peel back as much as possible, staying focused on the melody. Ostensibly a plea to a lover from a death bed – “Should I cry, then hold me as I die” – I’ve come to see it as a last ditch effort at saving a relationship, with Dulli making reference to his girl having “another brother on the side”. Yet, it’s not an angry song: he’s begging for forgiveness, as if Dulli is renouncing his hell-raising days as a rock singer in the name of love. The song comes to a stop with Dulli and co repeating “hold me”, quietly, softly – this isn’t the same Dulli who claimed to have “a dick for a brain”.

Or maybe it is, and he’s just learning when to keep his brain in his pants. He gets to indulge his more traditional soul-man tendencies mere minutes later, on the *ahem* single-minded “Clyde”, with it’s deeply thoughtful refrain of “You’re making me want it so”. But it’s still a totally different animal from the snarling, but ultimately helpless, lover Dulli portrayed on Gentlemen or Black Love. This is Dulli – and Chichester and Smith – in control, laying the charm on thick, never needing to shout, or even raise their voices above some sweetly harmonious crooning, and (probably unintentionally) hilarious groaning.

From “Love” onwards, we delve a lot further into Fila Brazillia’s involvement with the record, with some tracks feeling more like textures or soundscapes than fully formed songs. Dulli does, however, remain very visible (audible?) – his personality is too big to be hidden beneath some drum loops. On “Love”, his grim, nihilistic take on emotional attachment is present and correct: “So tell me true, I’d kill for you/ it’s sick I know, but after all/ by definition of the word, love is blind, love is good”. It’s classic Dulli, but it’s at least partially obscured by the unfamiliar aural territory it’s housed in. And it’s disjointing for a while, but it eventually reconciles itself: once your expectation for Rick McCollum’s screaming slide guitar quietens down, you just immerse yourself in Dulli’s genre experiment, and it sounds remarkably natural.

Which can’t really be said for “Verti-Marte”, unfortunately. It’s the most blatant stab at “commercial” electronica here, with its hideous “oooah, oooah” mantra. It’s not difficult to listen to, and Fila Brazillia do create a very atmospheric ambiance, with spoken word samples playing throughout the track, seemingly a conversation between Dulli and a European lady.

“Salvation is when you are… saved… I obviously don’t know what it means.” “Goodbye, motherf****r.”

I’ll cut Dulli a little slack here, though, because it’s clearly an attempt at achieving something with rhythm rather than words, which is new to him. And as ambient music, it’s not bad – except for the samples and the mantra. The “oooah, 0ooah” chant is annoying in exactly the same way it is in every song you’ve ever heard it – it’s a horrible mainstay of dance and electronic music, and I can’t stand hearing it, ever. It’s like listening to a retarded , castrated monkey trying to put lyrics to a song. The samples would be fine, but everytime I hear them, I’m reminded of the demented sounds of Pearl Jam’s “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”, and it creeps me out; especially in a song that’s otherwise so conducive to sensuality.

Things get back on track with “Railroad Lullaby” (Haha, yes!!! I bloody said it!) and “The Last Temptation”, the latter especially being a fine slice of seductive electro-folk. But the record really comes together on the last two tracks. Starting with the sullen, broken “Into The Street”, beginning with Dulli recalling a sleepless night: “I poured myself into the street”. The trio of singers make this track a very affecting experience, as their wordless moans and tired whispers trickle over gently plucked acoustic guitars. Chichester’s voice is particularly spectacular here.

Yes: you could describe some songs as sounding "smoky".

I said the album was at its best at the start and the end, and “Twilight”, the closing track, bears that theory out. The similarity in names with “The Twilite Kid” extends into the song itself – melodic keys, softly-treading trip-hop beats, and a guardedly optimistic take on love.

The longest night of every year

I spent beside you, baby

Do you remember anything about me?

I was the one when hope was gone

Who took too long to sing this song

Like “The Twilite Kid”, this comes to a close with a repeated phrase, this time with Chichester and Smith singing “Everything’s gonna be alright”, as if to convince themselves of the fact, while Dulli fills the spaces with his earlier plea: “Hold me… hold me… hold me”.

This call-back to the beginning of Twilight has the effect of lending the album a coherence it doesn’t really have when you inspect it closer – if you listened to it up as far as – say – “Verti-Marte”, it would seem as confused and lost as Cornell’s adventures in hip-hop, albeit with more good songs, and less embarrassing posturing. It’s an extension of the Dulli who declared himself the “bastard son of Stevie Wonder” as the Whigs did a live cover of “Superstition”, his rock side temporarily forgotten. It’s at its most effective when Smith and Chichester are on-board – they’re missing for the saggy middle section – as they seemingly keep Dulli focused on making fully-crafted songs.

The record as a whole has the larger effect of bridging the gap between the vaguely traditionalist Afghan Whigs – steeped in 70s soul and 80s guitar rock – and the latter-day Twilight Singers, whose touches of electronica blend seamlessly into a stew of epic rock and folk balladry. Only two or three songs would go onto my Twilight Singers greatest hits list (and only “The Twilite Kid” would make it onto a larger Greg Dulli’s greatest hits list) but as a side-project, rife with internal struggle and confused direction, it’s a definite success.

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