Powder Burns – AvoidPeril.com
Way back before the turn of the century, when I was barely out of high school, I had this friend we’ll refer to as “Todd.” Todd was a good 8 years older than me, which means that while I was still riding my Huffy and listening to Poison, Todd was hip to The Replacements and Husker Du. Every time I ran into Todd he would inevitably yammer on at length about Bob Mould. He’d heap mountains of praise upon Mould and proclaim his latest album “his best since the Du, dude!” Having been born a few years too late to have experienced the golden age of Husker Du, I would tersely greet Todd’s cheerleading with a snide remark like, “Bob Mould? Seriously?” or “You must be the last living Bob Mould fan.”
Flash-forward to the fall of 2003, where you’ll find this reviewer unsuccessfully trying to convince his friends to attend a show featuring The Twilight Singers, a collective fronted by former Afghan Whigs singer Greg Dulli. Few would disagree that the Whigs were perhaps the most underrated act of the 1990’s and that Dulli possesses an onstage charisma that rivals that of the likes of Mick Jagger. When the Whigs threw in the towel in 2000 most folks rightfully assumed that the band had simply run its course. A scant few of us concerned ourselves with Dulli’s post-Whigs existence, which included the release of an album by The Twilight Singers, a band he’d begun as a collaboration with ex-Satchel singer Shawn Smith and Harold Chichester. That album, finished with Fila Brazilla after a falling out with Smith and Chichester, met with a lukewarm reception, upon which Dulli ducked out of sight for nearly three years.
By the time Blackberry Belle was released in 2003, The Twilight Singers counted Dulli as its only original member. Although markedly stronger and more diverse than the debut TS album, initial reactions to Belle were tepid to say the least. The newly assembled touring line-up of the Singers hit tiny venues to small yet enthusiastic crowds. Undeterred, the newfangled Twilight Singers toured relentlessly, quickly releasing She Loves You, a well-received collection of cover songs in the summer of 2004. Thanks to dogged determination on behalf of the band, this new wave of activity succeeded in scoring the band some new fans. Instead of folks coolly tossing off comments like “Greg Dulli still plays music?,” people were now going on at length about the Twilight Singers live show, now considered to be as epic as that of the Afghan Whigs.
When it was announced that The Twilight Singers would drop a new album in 2006, anticipation ran high among fans and the newly adoring music press. When I ran into Mr. Dulli on the streets of Austin Texas during this year’s South By Southwest festival I told him how I, like many others, was excited about the forthcoming album. He grinned widely and replied, “it’s gonna be a good one.”
Motherfucker wasn’t bullshitting. The album is called Powder Burns and it’s sure to go down as the crowning achievement in an already storied career. A soulful, vastly cinematic stroll though one man’s battles with addiction and regret, Powder Burns is the type of album an artist tries yet never manages to make during the second or declining phase of his career.
The circumstances surrounding the making of this album have been well chronicled by the ever-forthcoming Dulli. After a good decade or so of heavy drug abuse, Dulli finally cleaned up his act and started writing songs to help him survey the wreckage of his lost years. As fate would have it, personal wreckage wouldn’t be the only form of destruction to affect this album. Powder Burns was scheduled to be completed in New Orleans, a city brought to its knees by Hurricane Katrina. Dulli and Co. ultimately decided to go ahead with their original plan. Recording was completed in a studio powered by generators in a nearly deserted city where looters roamed the streets and bodies were still being discovered in homes devastated by the flooding.
While others might have been beaten down by these combined circumstances, Dulli instead sounds completely energized. From the barnstorming opener “I’m Ready” forward, Dulli throws down harder than he has in years. The uptempo “Underneath the Waves” is the closest Dulli has ever come to a pure pop song and the come-hither “My Time (Has Come)” is the sort of blatantly sexualized song that only Dulli could pull off. It’s the songs that chronicle Dulli’s walk on the dark side that expectedly give the album its weight. The slow-burning “Bonnie Brae” finds Dulli trying to talk someone out of the throes of addiction, while the gorgeous “Candy Cane Crawl” cautions that “This shit’ll twist your little mind if you let it.”
Powder Burns, immaculately produced by Dulli and Mike Napolitano, features all of the classic instrumentation (loud guitars and drums offset by sultry piano, strings, etc.) of a vintage Dulli album along with some key assists form some unlikely places. Singer Joseph Arthur lends his talents to the haunting “The Conversation,” a cello-laced ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Whigs’ Black Love. It’s the most unlikely presence of Ani DiFranco on several of the album’s key tracks that gives the whole affair a little extra credibility. DiFranco and Dulli have a call-and-answer session on “Candy Cane Crawl” that gives the song a necessary soft edge. It’s on the title track, however, that they really bring the crowd to its knees, wailing on a chorus that’s so goddamn huge it’s a wonder it was able to fit on a CD.
It’s been nearly 20 years since The Afghan Whigs released their first album, yet Greg Dulli still sounds as relevant as ever. Cleaned up clearheaded, Dulli is once again ready to compete for the top slot on critic’s yearly top ten lists. While there’s no telling where Dulli’s twisted road will take him next, once can only hope that he will continue offer us a little glimpse inside every now and again.
— Dan Tebo