Reborn Amidst the Ruins
Pulse of the Twin Cities
by Rob van Alstyne
Greg Dulli has long been a creature of the night. In the two decades since the former University of Cincinnati film student first let his inner rock ‘n’ soul wild man out to play with the Afghan Whigs, his modus operandi has remained largely unchanged: simultaneously shaking the ass and scaring the pants off of every listener in the vicinity while spinning tales of afterhours delights and betrayals guaranteed to keep the faint of heart up at night. Dulli’s dangerous lothario guise first hit the masses back in 1993 with the Afghan Whig’s landmark major label debut, Gentleman, a fusion of prickly rock and libidinous soul that still sounds ahead of its time, and he’s continued to refine it ever since.
After the Whigs disbanded at the dawn of the new millennium, Dulli tried walking away from the rock ’n’ roll life and its attendant excesses only to learn that the “normalcy” of the workaday world wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “Five years ago I bought a bar in L.A. [the Shortstop Bar in Echo Park] and I have since bought a second one,” says Dulli, 41, proving not all musicians blow their major label advances. “I made myself get really personally involved—bartending, managing, ordering, doing inventory. I got to the point where I craved routine and one that didn’t involve leaving a two square mile area. I really liked it, and the period sort of recharged my batteries after the Whigs had died out. The music just receded and I got into the ‘pack my lunch, go to work and leave by six’ thing and convinced myself I loved it. But I think about a year into it I had one of those moments where I realized it was driving me insane and I was totally bored. I started getting cranky and not giving a shit about everybody’s problems and pretty much just said fuck it. I still own the bars but now I don’t really directly concern myself with anything beyond the aesthetics of the place and what albums are stacked in the jukebox.”
Although I imagine Dulli knows how to mix one stiff drink, L.A. nightclub-goers’ loss is music’s gain as Dulli’s move away from the club and back to the stage with the revolving cast of characters he’s dubbed the Twilight Singers has resulted in one of the finest second acts in indie-rock. After starting off slowly with the 2000 release Twilight, which actually consisted of recordings made back in 1997 and given the remix treatment, Dulli has cranked out four full-length albums since the fall of 2003. The latest is Powder Burns, an album that once again melds the sublime with the grime in a way that has long been Dulli’s calling card. Like always, Dulli’s eleventh full-length dispatch finds wide-eyed declarations of love (“I’m ready to love somebody”) crossing paths in the night with desperate lustful longing (“Mangy dog without a collar, buy me love for forty dollars”) with neither side of Dulli’s bifurcated repentant sinner/ recalcitrant degenerate lyrical persona giving an inch.
The music is equally diverse, ranging from the dobro-colored lullaby “The Conversation” to the funky Whigs reminiscent kiss-off stomp “My Time (Has Come)” while employing some heavy hitting guests (Joseph Arthur and Ani Difranco both contribute extensive background vocals). As with all classic Dulli joints there’s room for crooner-friendly suaveness (the opening measures of the sweaty palmed addiction diary “Bonnie Brae”), chased by scathing screams (the song’s epic chorus and outro). What’s perhaps most surprising are some of the straightforward anthems here: The propulsive piano and steady beat of “Underneath the Waves” feels more like an outtake from Springsteen’s Born to Run—and I mean that in the best way possible—than the work of Dulli’s notoriously skewed pen.
Ultimately Powder Burns is the sound of searching for hope and beauty amidst the ruins even when the odds are stacked against you. Not exactly your typical album subject matter, but Dulli, who spent the past eight years living about four months of the year in New Orleans, wasn’t writing about typical times.
“Hurricane Katrina was such an epochal moment in time, and my history in New Orleans came to the forefront while making it,” says Dulli who recorded the bulk of Powder Burns in New Orleans both directly before and after Katrina’s catastrophic impact, while also newly coming to terms with sobriety. “In a lot of ways I was drawing parallels between my last couple of years personally and what happened after the hurricane. What I saw was unbelievable. The physical damage and the loss—not just of property and human life—but the natural cost. I watched it in Italy on CNN as it was all happening but until I was there the gravity of the situation did not fully hit me. The TV shows the same pictures over and over and over but what it can’t capture is the ghostly silence of an abandoned city. I can’t even put a word to it; surreal is the only one that keeps popping into mind.I walked through the French quarter one morning just before curfew. I was the only person in the French quarter. I mean I walked for blocks and blocks and saw no one. It was moments like that that began to kind of seep into not just the writing and recording of the album but certainly the singing and everything else. The experience of being there both before and after the hurricane made its mark. I had started recording Powder Burns in New Orleans probably a year before the hurricane. I always work now with [producer] Mike Napolitano who was born and raised there so when I started doing the heavy pre-production for the record I got there in late July and left like two weeks before Katrina hit. I was literally coming back to finish what I started and doing it somewhere else was out of the question.”
One can only hope that New Orleans will show the same fiery restlessness, dogged resilience and tendency to rise again as the man who claimed so much inspiration from the city. “I came back on my own terms to music and when I was interested again,” responds Dulli when asked how he’s managed to remain musically vital at an age when most of his peers have already called it a day or become faded facsimiles of their former musical selves. “I try to stay curious, to remain a seeker. That’s what you have to do, you have to maintain some perspective and then just stay on it … it helps if you can write some good tunes and sing ‘em well.”