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Amber Headlights – PopMatters

by Zeth Lundy
Rating 5/10

Resistance? What’s that? Left at the mercy of Greg Dulli’s music, you’re not a listener; you’re putty, soon-to-be-defiled prey. With both the Afghan Whigs and the Twilight Singers, Dulli flaunts his cubist soul man persona like chloroform on a rag, the kind of perverted approach that makes you feel dirty for being turned on so easily.

It’s the feeling of being approached in the street, of being seduced by indiscreet asides — “your weakness is my sweetness”, “get the wheel, let’s go for a ride”, “so tight” — and then shown the darker motive behind the engaging eyes (“This world is wicked / I fit right in”). Amber Headlights, a short collection of nine songs Dulli cut in 2001 soon after the Whigs’ split and the Twilight Singers’ debut, can be avoided if you simply walk a little faster and cross the street — whether you classify it a treat for fans or a cleaning of the closet, it’s a chink in Dulli’s amorous armor. It’s muggy, unruly stuff, full of the sunglasses-at-night wantonness that characterized the Whigs’ 1965: bruised Bonham-worthy drum tracks, frothy wah-wah guitars, raspy vocals that make up for in hickeys what they lack for in pitch. Dulli traffics in rock’s decadences, and here, the goods come cheaply.

With the exception of one bona fide addition to the Dulli canon (the gutter soul lead-off track “So Tight”), Amber Headlights feels like a precursor to the Twilight Singers’ Blackberry Belle. It’s got the same aura of charged masculinity and forbidden excesses, but it can’t match the widescreen Born to Run-isms that the latter employed so freely. The strongest connection is “Cigarettes” (and its unnecessary piano demo “Get the Wheel”), which recalls Blackberry Belle’s “Teenage Wristband” in the epic chorus flourishes and calls to “go for a ride”. But mostly, the songs play like clichéd versions of Dulli’s grand vice-as-escape anthems: “Domani” has a thrilling bulge of a chorus, but an overused hook (do we really need another “I’m never coming down” song?); both “Golden Boy” and “Black Swan” aim high with a rabid desire to wring transcendence from oversaturated tracks and, ultimately, are weighted down by their own ambitions.

Amber Headlights is neither a holy grail of unreleased Dulli tracks nor an insightful glimpse into the goings-ons behind his velvet curtain; nevertheless, it’s by no means a major disappointment. It’s no wonder that the whole thing can’t live up to a song as strong as “So Tight” — its cocksure urgency will have you prematurely declaring the record a mangy messiah. Amber Headlights’ woozy spell is palpably tempting, but as its schematics become overexposed, the whole affair loses some of its glamour. But that’s the thing about Dulli and the fine art of seedy seduction: you have to have a snake oil salesman’s blood to play the part of a Casanova, and some days people aren’t buying what you’re selling.

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