Night & Day: In search of transcendence
The Prague Post Online
By Darrell Jónsson
In 2007, when Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan’s long-awaited collaboration Saturnalia was released (on Sub Pop records), expectations were extremely high — and no one was disappointed. Following Lanegan’s Screaming Trees and Dulli’s Afghan Whigs, critics and fans alike were primed for their collaboration as the Gutter Twins.
After their former groups disbanded in the late ’90s, both artists pursued musical choices and projects that served their musical evolution well. For Lanegan, this included a stint with California Palm Desert power rockers Queens of the Stone Age, balanced by Americana-tinged solo work like his 2001 Field Songs (on Beggars Banquet) and his country-pop styled 2006 collaboration with Isobel Campbell, Ballad of the Broken Seas (on V2 Records). In the meantime, with his project the Twilight Singers, Dulli has continued to expand on many impulses he first explored in the Afghan Whigs.
When Sub Pop signed the Cincinnati, Ohio-based Afghan Whigs in 1990, it was the first expansionist move of the Seattle label bent on world conquest. Even though they were not from the Pacific Northwest, the Whigs shared the aching vocal signature of the ’80s and ’90s youthful angst associated with grunge. There was an essential musical difference, though. Dulli and his band did not share the same inspiration that Seattle-based bands had for British proto-metal filtered through the Northwest amp stacks of proto-grunge pioneers like Napalm Beach. Afghan Whigs drew from a slightly different wellspring, as Dulli tells The Prague Post: “R&B from anywhere was the sort of music I gravitated toward as a listener — Southern R&B, Chicago R&B and Philly soul.”
On Saturnalia, Dulli and Lanegan meet in a dark alley to combine all the above, with a mix of whiskey-soaked Everly Brothers harmonies and rock ’n’ roll production that approaches the finesse of George Martin. Dulli’s mellotron stabs and sweeps add symphonic rock elements to several of the tracks, while swirling guitar riffs persistently lead the listener on a ghostly haul from the gutter to redemption. Most of the songs also carry an echo of the oceanic pomp and desire for light at the end of a drunken tunnel expressed in Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue — minus the drowning. As Dulli told Spin magazine in 2007, “I couldn’t tell you what Saturnalia’s theme is, but there’s a seeking of transcendence that’s new. I have never written songs like this before — it’s a different temple I’m visiting.”
The seamless result raises the question of whether Saturnalia is some sort of concept album, a notion Dulli denies in saying, “The cohesion came from sheer force of will.” A good part of the smoothness can also be attributed to a functional working familiarity built by nearly a decade of shorter-term collaborations, ranging from cameo appearances on each other’s recording projects to a 2006 Twilight Singers tour that included Lanegan. Credit also goes to the studio genius behind the Gutter Twins, Mathias Schneeberger, whom Dulli describes as “one of the best producer/engineers I’ve ever worked with.”
In chasing America’s late ’80s/’90s musical legacy, it’s hard to find a better realization of its current rock ’n’ roll promise than Lanegan and Dulli. When they come together as the Gutter Twins, hard country meets hard rock in an ongoing search for musical soul.
Soul has its musical roots in gospel, a genre where troubled minds seek a happier day, which it seems Lanegan and Dulli have found as the Gutter Twins. “Outside of being one of my best friends, Mark is truly one of the best lead singers ever,” Dulli says. “His voice is remarkable; he’s a good songwriter and a good dude. That alone is a joy. To travel around and sing with your friends … I’ve got a dream job.”