Ohio native was determined to finish album in ravaged city

Aaron Beck
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Sometimes a record’s history equals the listening experience.

Powder Burns, the Twilight Singers’ fourth album in six years, is one such record.

On their first three releases, the Singers — led by Greg Dulli, a Hamilton native and former frontman of Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs — played gauzy, serene yet dark soundtracks for Dulli’s street-wise, nocturnal lyrics.

Although Powder Burns incorporates some of that recipe, it is very much a loud, brash rock ’n’ roll statement.

Dulli, during a recent phone interview from his Los Angeles home, attributed the different sound to heavy touring with his band and the Italian rock group Afterhours.

“For a time there between the Twilight Singers and Afterhours, I played, like, 160 shows in two years. I knew I needed to crank it up this time,” he said.

“The Twilight Singers started out as a side project. It was a direct reaction to what I had been doing (in the Whigs). I think I went out of my way to explore different sides of my personality.

“As I began to continue this project, I decided to throw the chains off. Some of the outtakes are brutally loud. One song in particular is heavy metal.”

The other reason that the Twilight Singers’ new album arrived bearing teeth? A little storm by the name of Hurricane Katrina.

Dulli was on one of the first planes allowed into New Orleans after Katrina devastated the city last year.

He arrived from Italy, where he was recording and performing with Afterhours, to see what he could salvage of the music he’d recorded for the next Twilight Singers album.

“What Katrina did to that town I hope I’ll never see again,” he said. “New Orleans under curfew, martial law — when I got there, the population was at 75,000 in a city of 600,000. It was a ghost town, no birds. The trees had drowned. There was a lifelessness to it.”

The conditions didn’t favor doing anything, let alone continuing the recording of the album Powder Burns.

On Dulli’s Web site, www. thetwilightsingers.com, a machinelike, electrical buzz mimics like an eternal flame.

“My producer (Mike Napolitano) has his studio there. It’s his home,” Dulli said. “We both felt like we had to stand up.”

Before the storm, Napolitano and his girlfriend, Ani DiFranco, fled the city, leaving behind Dulli’s recordings and some of DiFranco’s.

“When I finally talked to him, he and Ani had busted in New Orleans commando-style and snagged the tapes and took them to Nashville until we could go back,” Dulli said.

“To let that (expletive) beat us down — to go out to L.A. or wherever else — that was not an option. We were very stubborn in our belief that we should finish it (Powder Burns) there, and that’s where we finished it.”

The album — which features guests DiFranco, singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur and singer Mark Lanegan (in sampled form) — is one mark of a city rising from the ashes. But it also represents Dulli’s rebirth.

Before he began work on Powder Burns — at home in Los Angeles, in his former home of New Orleans, in Italy and in Cincinnati — Dulli decided to muzzle the “rather rock ’n’ roll lifestyle” he’d been cultivating for years.

“I’d gotten to a crossroads, and it was go deeper into the woods or climb the mountain,” he said. “I chose to climb the mountain. I wanted to live.”

Without offering details on the lifestyle, he said, “Somewhere along the line, it went from fun to need without me knowing it. Suffice it to say it was flicking a switch when it happened.”

As any good observer does, Dulli channeled the experience into fodder for songs such as Candy Cane Crawl and Forty Dollars.

“Everything I write is a combination of my own experiences and a healthy dose of legend,” he said. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

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