Saturnalia – San Francisco Bay Guardian
BY TODD LAVOIE
San Francisco Bay Guardian
Salvation can come to us in the strangest of places, but it takes a special person to search it out in the sordid, cigarette butt-cluttered back alleys where the daylight never creeps in. While most of us might cower in the darkness, vocalists Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan have each built careers from reveling in it, offering contrasting – but curiously compatible – dissections of life in the shadows. As frontman for the Afghan Whigs and the Twilight Singers, Dulli has waxed romantic about tortured love and shady midnight dealings. Meanwhile, Lanegan has focused on matters of mortality and addiction, blowing a ghostly rumble into his former band the Screaming Trees and myriad solo albums and collaborations (Isobel Campbell, Queens of the Stone Age).
Somewhere in the murk these two after-hours explorers crossed paths, and from there they walked side by side in search of redemption. A new name for the venture was needed, of course, and the christening was inevitable: the Gutter Twins.
The union has yielded fascinating results: their new disc, Saturnalia (Sub Pop), while still bearing occasional similarities to previous works by Dulli and Lanegan, offers distinctive, dirty-fingered gospel theatrics not found elsewhere in their catalogs. “That was the whole point,” Dulli explains by phone from Los Angeles. “We didn’t want to sound like just the two of us put together. We wanted to sound like something new.” In lieu of Dulli’s familiar sensitive-lothario stylings and soulful film noir expositions and in place of Lanegan’s inner-demon warfare, the language of the Gutter Twins is one of angels, chariots, and even rapture.
Salvation doesn’t come easy, however: Saturnalia offers glimmers of hope, but reaching them still requires the navigation of a late-night sleazescape studded with dense atmospherics and prickly instrumentation. “God’s Children” opens with an unsettling Nico-recalling harmonium drone, whereas the creeping violin swells at the start of “Circle the Fringes” make for an ominous portent of the twin-guitar melodrama that soon follows. Paradise might be within sight, but it don’t come cheap. Or, as Lanegan puts it on “Seven Stories Underground,” “Ooh, heaven – it’s quite a climb.”
As if one evocative moniker weren’t enough, Dulli has also referred to the project as “the Satanic Everly Brothers,” a tag that fits with velvet-glove snugness once you’ve soaked up the dusky harmonies and bristling vocal interplay of the duo’s feedback-and-folk-driven voodoo. Lanegan’s seismic-rumble baritone finds its perfect foil in Dulli’s leering, sneering rasp, lending a nervy intensity to their declaration “I hear the Rapture’s coming / They say He’ll be here soon” on “The Stations.” Elsewhere, particularly over the mellow electro sputter of “The Body,” the paired voices exude a soothing soulfulness suited for a spiritual journey.
How, pray tell, did these two larger-than-life figures manage to work together to unleash such devastating beauty on Saturnalia? For Dulli, the answer comes quickly: “Lanegan is the easiest guy to work with, no doubt about it. I think we balanced each other out, and we definitely brought out elements in each other which we hadn’t really used much before this.” Maybe the gutter isn’t such a bad place after all….