Twilight Singers in their zone

Twilight Singers in their zone
BY BRADLEY BAMBARGER
Star-Ledger Staff

POP/ROCK

“I’ve always been the guy who touches the hot stove — although I may have touched it for the last time,” says Greg Dulli, referring to the hedonistic matter at the heart of “Powder Burns,” his fifth and most potent album as ringleader of the Twilight Singers.

“Powder Burns” — like most Dulli productions, whether Twilight records or those of his previous band,’90s alt-rock provocateurs the Afghan Whigs — is a concept album, atmospheric and autobiographical. Dulli musters his songs like scenes in a noir-ish film, one that tells of being led by cocaine’s siren song to the dark end of the street.

“Most any drug, when used responsibly, can be an aid in a mind-expanding look at life,” Dulli says, “but when you cross from recreational use into physical need, that’s dangerous territory — and what you do next will determine who you are. I had crossed into ‘the DMZ,’ but made it back. I didn’t want to be a laboratory rat.”

Dulli, 41, has never flinched from grittier realities. Fronting the Whigs, he broached sexual politics with gloves off, yielding such highpoints as the Stones-evoking album “Gentleman.” With his rotating crew in the Twilight Singers, Dulli has often explored more introspective areas, although “ecstasy and catharsis” are still his stock in trade.

Bred in Ohio, Dulli splits time between houses in Los Angeles and in his “spiritual home” of New Orleans, where he recorded the bulk of “Powder Burns” just after Hurricane Katrina with producer/guitarist Mike Napolitano (whose significant other, Ani DiFranco, supplied soaring, pure-toned harmony vocals for many tracks).

Although it boasts a dense, charged sound, “Powder Burns” shows Dulli peaking as a melodist, particularly in such songs as “Underneath the Waves,” “Bonnie Brae” and the title epic. Dulli chalks up his inspiration to the combination of a more intense, cohesive recording experience and at least slightly cleaner living, which “gave me access to areas that a cloudy mind just can’t get to.”

As with the Afghan Whigs, the Twilight Singers have a cult audience that stretches from Los Angeles to Amsterdam to Rome. But New York’s Irving Plaza — where the Twilights play on Thursday — has been the scene for some of Dulli’s most memorable performances with both bands.

The audience at the 2004 Twilight Singers show at Irving Plaza practically lifted off the ground when Dulli launched into “Teenage Wristband” (a highlight from the “Blackberry Belle” disc) and his volatile cover of the Anglo-American folk tune “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” That performance didn’t end until 3 a.m. The current tour, Dulli insists, stands to be even better.

“This is the best post-Whigs collection of musicians I’ve ever played with — and we’re set to stun,” Dulli says, adding that opening acts Jeff Klein and Italian band After Hours (both of which have Dulli-produced albums) will be drafted on stage at times.

Dulli is a businessman these days, owning two bars in L.A., which he says give him “more fiscal security than rock’n’ roll ever has.” But, he’s quick to add, only music “has the power to transform you into a child — in the best way. A great record can make you feel like 15 again — you have your headphones on, your parents are asleep, and you’re transported, with the possibilities endless.

“And when that magic happens live with an audience, well, that’s better than sex or drugs or 10 hours of sleep on an expensive bed.”

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