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Saturnalia –

A match made in rock heaven – Music –
The waning of alternative rock’s commercial clout in the late ’90s left a lot of musicians bereft. Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan — who both had records stamped with the premier grunge brand, Sub Pop — lost their influential bands, Dulli’s Afghan Whigs, Lanegan’s Screaming Trees. But by dint of fertile minds and a survivor’s mentality, they have thrived into their early 40s. These two, long kindred spirits, resisted becoming casualties of substances, despite bad habits; they have each built up catalogs of artful rock steeped in the depth of adult concerns.

Dulli has found a solo voice as the auteur behind a loose collective, the Twilight Singers; his “Powder Burns” album was this listener’s pick for 2006’s best. Lanegan has issued soulful solo discs and contributed regularly to Queens of the Stone Age, as well as made an unlikely duet album with Scottish warbler Isobel Campbell. Dulli and Lanegan were no strangers to each other’s projects, and they paired thrillingly last year for a bluesy Twilight Singers makeover of Massive Attack’s “Live With Me.” It was a taster for a full-blown duo as the Gutter Twins; their album is a masterpiece of bruised romanticism, as compelling as anything they’ve done.

The Gutter Twins moniker is a sardonic inversion of the high-living Glimmer Twins alias of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and the album’s title — “Saturnalia” — gives off a whiff of excess itself, referencing an ancient Roman festival-cum-orgy. Dulli and Lanegan’s voices do go together like whiskey and smoke, the least of vices for this pair. But if sex, drugs and rock’n’roll color the backdrop of this music, many of the songs seem to search for something else; religious imagery often stands in for anything that might save a soul in danger of slipping — romance, friendship, family, art.

“Saturnalia” features players from the Twilight Singers and Queens of the Stone Age/Desert Sessions circles, with production by Mathias Schneeberger, Dulli’s right-hand man of choice. The highlight “God’s Children” — where sin and salvation hold hands — soars like the best Twilight Singers songs, the tolling verses exploding into a chorus that moves, Dulli singing: “Strange the way you seem suicidal/ You don’t live at all/ So, why you crying/ Come and play with me, feel desire.”

“The Stations” is a dark gospel song by singers who don’t know what hymns mean, except that they might work as talismans to ward off “the demons all around my room.” In “Idle Hands” (which are “the devil’s playthings”), the corrosive guitar riffs and brooding words evoke the hard edges of Lanegan’s last solo album, “Bubblegum.” But Lanegan’s pained growl in the verses is buoyed by Dulli’s wreath of harmony in the chorus, a little light shining into the shadows.

With its “Strawberry Fields” swirl and George Harrison-hinting guitar, the Dulli-sung “I Was in Love With You” feels like the slow-burn detonation of a Beatles song, the shards reflecting something deeply personal. “Seven Stories Underground” has the vibe of a folk-blues drama, with Lanegan trading his rumble for a kind of crooning at the moon.

Dulli and Lanegan hadn’t figured out how to make their lowlife Everly Brothers harmonies work live in their first full show as a duo, a few weeks ago at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. With a few more gigs under their belts, they should be better March 19 at Webster Hall in Manhattan.

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