The Afghan Whigs
Unbreakable (A Retrospective 1990-2006)
The Twilight Singers
A Stitch in Time
(One Little Indian)
I forgot how much I need Greg Dulli in my life. His cigarette and need-damaged rasp, his horrible way about him, his come-ons and breakdowns. Greg Dulli might be the last great male rock singer. Lesser men struggle at the limit of their range, but Greg Dulli makes jive turkey gumbo out of his. On "Retarded" the opening track on this new deliriously good greatest hits package, the way he goes muthafucker lied to you/muthafucker took me head - he just has a way with "muthafucker." I know that songs are fiction and it's a fool's mistake to confuse the art and the artist, but the characters are so brilliantly wrought in their naked wretchedness, you have to think them autobiographical. It's like reading John Fante and not assuming he really is Arturo Bandini, that Charles Bukowski is not that drunken postal worker or whatever.
The tracks from Gentlemen, widely-accepted as their finest hour still hit with the same shaking hand in a leather glove. "Debonair" is a noir rock/disco masterpiece even the Smiths and New Order cannot touch, it's like a cover band crooner being slowly consumed by flames - "Tonight I go to hell, for what I've done to you. It ain't about regret; it's when I tell the truth."
"Be Sweet" is on my shortlist of perfect songs, mixing his pimp swagger with aching naked tenderness - "Ladies, let me tell you about myself, I got a dick for a brain, and my brain is going to sell my ass to you." Who else writes stuff like that? Then the devastating "What Jail is Like," as arrogant, hyper-inflated a love song ever written, appears, with Dulli prowling around it like a panther, panting comparisons of a fucked relationship to prison. He offers "if you wanna scare me, you'll cling to me no matter what I do," gleefully offering the keys to his cell to the first taker, just so he can scratch his way out again. I don't know of another singer who posits such a savagely honest take on human intercourse. We see what we want to see in a lover's face, but the protagonists in Afghan Whigs songs see corpses, moldering with decay and yet are still turned on. It's creepy how much I can relate to this music, which is exactly why I need it.
The surprise track here, one I'd completely forgot about, is the cover of The Supremes' "Come See about Me" upending everything by injecting their sinister ooze to coat the glitter. Another favorite is "Going to Town" from the underappreciated Black Love. It's a simple plea for arson on the surface, but the character sees flames all around all the time. "Going to town, burn it down, and get your stroll on baby." There was a time when I would've considered this a good pickup line.
It's not all whiskey sweats and cumstains here though. The Whigs can rock a sweet ballad like no one. "Crime Scene Part One" and "Magazine" both come in on drunken angels' wings, and Dulli's pleas approach gospel earnestness. Which leads me to Dulli's current band, The Twilight Singers. They deal almost expressly in this gossamer side of consuming self-hatred inflicted on others in the name of love. The latest dispatch from them is A Stitch in Time, a short EP that further proves Dulli's power as a songwriter by having guest singers on three of the five tracks, some of which are even cover songs. Mark "former Screaming Tree" Lanegan, who I've thought to sound like a boorish, fake-blues foghorn on his own recordings, sounds like what I want Kris Kristofferson to sound like when he utters I been thinking about you baby on Massive Attack's "Live With Me." The walls run with blood when Dulli appears in the background with his post-Axl Rose ooooh child's. It's a brilliant devastating song. The second Lanegan cover situation is a soul-magic version of "Flashback" by New Zealand's Fat Freddy's Drop. I won't pretend to be conversant with Fat Freddy's Drop's original for comparison sake, but this song is righteous, and outside New Zealand anyway, unmistakably theirs.
Dulli collaborated with another singer I generally get nothing from, Joseph Arthur - a guy I would describe as no Rufus Wainwright and possibly not even a Jack Johnson, on "Sublime" and coaxed a rather serviceable AOR hit out of it. I still wish, based on the success of the aforementioned songs that he had instead turned ol' Tree Screamer loose on "The Pina Colada Song" but this is a sweet little number.
The originals, bearing the master's voice are just as fine. "They Ride" sounds more like an Afghan Whigs song, with its beat pounded like a tenderloin and Dulli's jive talk, but eh, I'm cool with that. "The Lure Would Prove Too Much" is the real jewel though. Dulli glows in the slow burn filigree around him, his inner diva unleashed. The corniest trick in the book, placing an answering machine message into the threads of the song is employed here with a showman's aplomb. And this is why he is needed in my life. I can easily get caught up in the shitty indie game of competitive fecklessness and forget that songs are meant to be capital-S Sung, muthafucker, and it takes someone man enough to admit he is both a demon and a Diana Ross worshiper to do it.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com