There are just some pairings in life that seem destined. Chocolate and peanut butter, chips and salsa, Martin & Lewis and death & taxes are just a handful of those that seem inevitably entwined. So, one has to wonder, after hearing the incredible album, Saturnalia, how Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan had avoided working solely with each other for so long. Both Dulli and Lanegan have collaborated with hundreds of musicians in their time, to list them all here would be futile, and frankly, that’s what Wikipedia is for. They’ve even worked with each other over the last few Dulli-led (duly noted!) Twilight Singers releases, as well as Lanegan’s solo release, Bubblegum. But it was only when Lanegan was asked whether the two would do something else together that the Gutter Twins were born. You see, Lanegan gave an off-the-cuff response with a silly name that both evoked the squalor and darkness of the sound the two would create together and lampooned the silly nickname given to rock’s most famous guitar and vocal duo, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger (`The Glimmer Twins’). This ended up to be surprising news to Dulli, albeit a happy one. And thus, Saturnalia, already one of the best albums of 2008, was born.
The front cover photo of Saturnalia reminded me of the opening scenes of Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law. The image of a vacant New Orleans lot, a scraggly tree in the background and an ominous stormcloud coming in is entirely indicative of the sound you can expect from the Gutter Twins, a little bit of debauchery, a lot of danger and a hint of Tom Waits, all done with a lot of artistry. Opener “The Stations” is the oncoming of the storm indicated by the cover, slowly building with mentions of the rapture as guitars swirl and Lanegan growls his signature growl. That storm finally comes with repeated drum and guitar machine gun shots in “God’s Children,” a gospel-inspired track featuring Dulli’s yearning vocals. “All Misery / Flowers” follows, and is one of the best examples of the balanced combination of both artists, sounding like a Tom Waits meets Godspeed You Black Emperor Southern Gothic masterpiece. Dulli’s guitar notes bend and keen like ambulance sirens caught up in a twister while Lanegan appears like some kind of Stephen King-ian `man in black’ prophesying catastrophe.
“The Body,” comes as the eye of the storm, featuring the wonderful Martina Topley-Bird on backup vocals. It’s an almost `sunny,’ though that term can’t possibly fit with anything on this album, tune that alleviates the weight of darkness that pervades this record. That weight, and don’t get me wrong, I’ll burden it anytime, returns with the glorious “Idle Hands,” a track that will recall the gloomy days of the Sisters of Mercy. Expect this track to appear at the closing credits of the latest hip horror flick or an adaptation of The Dark Tower, whichever comes first. The dual voices of the black clad frontmen intertwine in such a way as to seem inseparable, as if they had been meant for each other. “Circle the Fringes” is a truly mesmerizing track that fed my jones for something akin to the Beatles cum Sonic Youth majesty of the Afghan Whigs. The vocal tradeoff in this song leaves me with chills.
It’s not all goth and doom and gloom, however. Both “Who Will Lead Us” and “Seven Stories Underground” are quite meditative in their way. “I Was In Love With You” is equally heavy on the drone, until about a minute and a half in when Petra Haden’s violin and Simone Vitucci’s cello take us into dramatic territory, later highlighted by Dulli’s Harrison-esque guitars. “Bête Noire” is illuminated by Dulli’s Rhodes piano that makes one think late era Beatles with Billy Preston in tow being swayed down a dark and dirty path by the devil. “Each to Each” pulses with energy and swells with a building sound found only in modern post-rock, which is what is probably garnering them comparisons with Mogwai. The effect is transfixing. That feeling lasts long after the elegiac closer (ironically, it actually sounds like New Order’s instrumental touchstone, “Elegia”), “Front St.,” comes to an end. The music of the Gutter Twins will end up haunting every sleeping and waking dream. You just can’t shake them. The odd thing is, these songs are so exhilarating and involving that you’ll feel exhausted after each track, yet not enough to want the entire experience to start all over again. “We’re gonna have some fun, son,” the duo intones in the last few seconds of “Front St.,” and by then you know they mean it.
I’ve long been in love with the sound of Greg Dulli’s guitar. His work with the Afghan Whigs, particularly songs on Gentlemen such as “Be Sweet” and his one amazing track on the Foo Fighters’ debut, “X-Static,” left me in a wash of electric euphoria. The same holds true for the voice of Lanegan. From their early SST years to the megahit “Nearly Lost You,” and beyond, his gravelly voice has kept me in shock and awe at its menacing might. The pairing of these indie heavyweights has been hyped long and hard in the independent press, and Saturnalia is surely no let down. It’s only apt that Sub Pop released Saturnalia as Lanegan is a northwest icon and Dulli led the first non-northwest band ever to be signed by the label. But I also have a feeling they’re not taking that fact for granted. I wouldn’t be surprised if this album ends up in each staffer’s top ten label releases of all time. It’s that good.
Wovenhand – Mosaic
Sisters of Mercy – Floodland
Black Heart Procession – 2
MP3: “Idle Hands”