Amber Headlights – Philadelphia Weekly

by Jeffrey Barq
Philadelphia Weekly

Grade A

Who would’ve thought Greg Dulli would ever put out a record all about innocence? This is the man who began his final Afghan Whigs album with lines like “I want you so bad, after tonight/I’ll never walk the same/And you’re to blame.” The same dude who opened his first Twilight Singers album with “Rock steady, baby, your man is dead/Be careful, sugar, who you call a friend.” The very guy who grew so intoxicated with the headiness of New Orleans that he sculpted an entire album, the Whigs’ swan song 1965, around the city’s legendary grime and sex, now all but washed away. It was in 2001 in this booze-and-sweat-soaked euphoria that Dulli recorded the nine songs that comprise Amber Headlights, a 31-minute paean to the unseemly joy of seedy, balls-out rock ‘n’ roll. Amber is brooding, wild and sexy – yet absent the real darkness that would settle in just two days after Dulli recorded the album’s closer, when his friend, director Ted Demme, suddenly died of a heart attack in January 2002. Amber Headlights was subsequently shelved, and Dulli’s two Twilight Singers records that followed – Blackberry Belle and the all-covers She Loves You – were among the most haunting works he’s ever released. In comparison, Amber sounds positively upbeat. Frequent Twilight Singers collaborators – guitarist Jon Skibic, keyboardist Mathias Schneeberger and bassist Michael Sullivan, among others – are all over the joint. Whigs bassist John Curley even stops by for the melodic “Pussywillow.” The harmonium-based “Wicked” sounds like a Screaming Trees tribute, no doubt an influence of Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, with whom Dulli’s recently been recording and touring. The solo-piano closing hymn, “Get the Wheel” is the album’s most tortured track, with its scratchy, cracking vocals and naked, plodding chords. (The song was recently used to heartbreaking effect in the closing moments of the season finale of Denis Leary’s FX drama Rescue Me. Demme, Leary and Dulli all dined together the night “Get the Wheel” was recorded.) We know how the story ends – Demme dies, Dulli’s music finds yet darker devils, and his city of muse drowns under the levees’ breach – making “Get the Wheel” an eerie foreshadowing, and ironically making the rest of Amber Headlights sound like the most innocent, carefree tunes he’s ever recorded.

Grade: A

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