Powder Burns – Drowned in Sound

Drowned in Sound
Rating: 9/10

Nick Cowen

Redemption has to be hard-won if it’s to mean anything at all, and whether he knows it or not, Greg Dulli has been proponent of this credo for pretty much all of his career.

Back when Dulli was fronting the Afghan Whigs, he was probably the only advocate for action in an alt-rock mainstream which promoted wallowing in misery as an end in itself. While many of his contemporaries whined or raged impotently, Dulli stared hard into the mirror at his cracked reflection and tried to fix what was broken. He didn’t always succeed, but damn if he didn’t look good trying.

The music followed suit; ever since Dulli parked the Whigs at the dusky junction of 1996’s Black Love, the leering indie-rock-funk they trafficked in took on an increasingly darker tone. After his brief sabbatical following the Whigs’ demise in 2000, Dulli pretty much picked up exactly where he left off with The Twilight Singers, and if anything, headed for even more shadowy pastures. I’m not saying the man’s a completely nocturnal creature at this stage, but I’m betting he owns a lot of black.

Similar in hue to 2003’s Blackberry Belle, Dulli’s fourth outing with the Twilight Singers, Powder Burns, is anything but a re-tread. While Dulli’s working from his usual palette of muddy grooves, guitar-scree and leering swagger, the new album sounds more urgent and lucid in intention than its predecessors.

Opening with the sinister synth-lines of ‘Towards The Waves’, the record throws over the tender hand-holding of ‘Martin Eden’ and hits out with the sonic brickbat of ‘I’m Ready’; over fuzzed-out bass and jagged guitars, Dulli snarls, “I’m ready / to love somebody”, making it sound more like a threat than a declaration.

The intensity doesn’t let up. From the soaring choruses of ‘There’s Been A Murder’, to the bruising confessional of ‘Bonnie Brae’ and the chunka-chunka piano line of ‘Forty Dollars’, it’s clear Dulli is aiming high. There’s a new-found clarity to the proceedings, and the hooks are undeniably infectious. If before he was hinting at an altercation, here, he’s picking a fight.

Lyrically, the album is informed by two life-altering events in Dulli’s life; his decision to clean-up, and Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effect on his adoptive hometown of New Orleans. At his insistence, Powder Burns was finished in the battered city – instruments had to be powered by generators and recording time was restricted due to the curfew imposed by the National Guard. Dulli has also spoken in interviews of his disgust at how quickly so many people were to abandon The Big Easy in its hour of need.

But while ‘Bonnie Brae’ may face down drug addiction and ‘I Wish I Was’ pays tribute to New Orleans, one of Dulli’s greatest strengths as a songwriter has always been his ability to make his particular brand of lyrical melodrama universally applicable without resulting to eye-rolling clichés.

Powder Burns may document Greg Dulli’s latest bout with his external and internal demons, but it’s also the perfect soundtrack to anyone else’s nocturnal activities – however illicit they may be. If only every attempt at personal redemption extended such a warm and alluring invitation.

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