Live in New York | Pitchfork.com
Pitchfork.com | Stuart Berman
If men are indeed pigs, then Greg Dulli’s body of work amounts to a veritable slaughterhouse. And yet, his talent lies not only in his unwavering ability to deconstruct the male ego, but also translating all that psychological tumult and turmoil into rapturous, crowd-pleasing live entertainment. Debuting in 2000 with an album produced by UK downtempo dons Fila Brazillia, the Twilight Singers were initially conceived as a low-key counterpoint to Dulli’s more frenetic previous band, the Afghan Whigs. But over the past decade, thanks to an ever-expanding and rotating cast of collaborators, Dulli has effectively built up the Twilight Singers into a more elaborate rendering of the Afghan Whigs’ rock-noir vision, enhancing the cinematic quality of the Whigs’ mid-1990s catalog and honoring their reputation for breathless, soul-revue style performances that go on for hours. By feeding Dulli’s unsavory songbook through all manner of medleys, impromptu covers, and crowd-participation gambits, the Twilight Singers have essentially become the Bad Seeds by way of Prince– emotional devastation you can dance to.
All of which makes the Twilight Singers’ first live album less of a stop-gap cash-grab than a long-overdue inevitability. And like the canonical, career-making concert documents of the 1970s, Live in New York– recorded last May at Webster Hall, on a Friday the 13th– works both as a super-fan keepsake and a gateway for newcomers into Dulli’s dense discography. The carefully plotted presentation and weighty nature of Twilight Singers albums– not to mention Dulli’s unvarnished, raw rasp of a voice– can make them a foreboding proposition for some, but Live in New York eases the entry process with a representative sampling of high points from the band’s five albums (albeit, unsurprisingly, with a particular emphasis on this year’s Dynamite Steps) while giving shine to a quality not often heard on the band’s recordings– Dulli’s gregarious personality, which sees him eagerly playing the master of ceremonies to his own breakdown.
Though Live in New York spreads 21 songs over two CDs (the digital version features only 19), it shows that Dulli essentially works in three modes: swaggering, nocturnal rockers; desolate break-of-dawn ballads; and gradually intensifying epics that bridge the gap between the two. His gift as a performer thus lies in knowing when to deploy each. Unlike most live albums, Live in New York’s CD version presents a complete, unedited concert, but one with perfectly paced ebbs and flows, as songs are radically rearranged and/or grouped together into seamless mini-suites. Dulli is especially aware of how his various songs can complement or even bolster one another through association– early on, the tension established by Dynamite Steps’ slow-boiling “Blackbird and the Fox” explodes into a ferocious “I’m Ready” (off 2006’s Powder Burns) as if they were two parts of the same song, while the set hits a fever pitch two-thirds in with raging revamps of “Love” and “Annie Mae” (from 2000’s Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers) that highlight the crucial role of Rick Nelson’s piano-pounding and Greg Wieczorek’s crashing drums to the band’s widescreen sound.
Naturally, this mixtape approach to his own discography extends to Dulli’s incorporating quotes from other artists’ work. Dulli’s no stranger to recontextualizing innocent pop songs for more devious ends– “Forty Dollars” shrewdly swipes lines from the Beatles’ “She Loves You” and “All You Need Is Love” to depict a transaction with a prostitute– but in concert, this instinct goes into overdrive, whether it’s using Carl Carlton’s 1970s soul classic “Everlasting Love” as the closing refrain on “Esta Noche” or dropping “Hey Ya!”-inspired “I’m just being honest” ad libs in “Forty Dollars” (not to mention a snippet of the Whigs’ “Rebirth of the Cool” on “Never Seen No Devil”). Partway through Live In New York, Dulli even interrupts one cover song (Martina Topley-Bird’s “Too Tough to Die”, which is available only on the CD version) to start another, as he slinks into the audience to lead a mass, off-mic sing-along of Tom Petty’s “Breakdown”. Compared to Dulli’s other acts of reappropriation, the Petty theft initially seems less purposeful, and more like frivolous, crowd-baiting shtick. But, in hearing how quickly the audience picks up on Dulli’s lead, it ultimately provides a perfect snapshot of how, at a Twilight Singers show, one man’s anguish can so easily be elevated into communal, celebratory catharsis.