Friday, March 07, 2008

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: DOWN IN THE GUTTER

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 18, 2008


Rarely have gloom and damnation sounded so attractive.

Under the collective name of The Gutter Twins, Mark Lanegan — former lead moaner of Screaming Trees — and Greg Dulli — best known as the main voice of The Afghan Whigs and, more recently, The Twilight Singers — have teamed up to create Saturnalia, a foreboding serenade for a dark night of the soul, a morose masterpiece that captures the strengths of each of the Twins. It’s full of themes of deteriorating love, impending doom, spiritual apocalypse, guilt, and sorrow — the feel-good hit of the season.

This isn’t the first time Lanegan and Dulli have collaborated. Lanegan is basically an honorary Twilight Singer, having appeared on several tracks on various TS albums. I was first exposed to the music of these guys back in 1991, on a compilation album from the Sub Pop label sardonically titled The Grunge Years. The Afghan Whigs had a song on it called “Retarded.” Lanegan — whose solo work is far more impressive than his stuff with Screaming Trees — had a tune there called “Ugly Sunday.”

Saturnalia is a Sub Pop product too, though the Seattle record company that epitomized independent rock during the grunge years of the late ’80s and early ’90s is now part of the Warner Music empire (Warner owns 49 percent of the company). The good news is that this album sounds like a Sub Pop record of yore. With the first ominous strums of the opening tune, “The Stations,” a listener realizes that it’s going to be an intense excursion. Lanegan’s baritone is out front at the outset; the tempo picks up, and Dulli takes over the refrain. “I hear the rapture’s coming/They say he’ll be here soon/Right now there’s demons crawling all around my room.”

This is followed by a song called “God’s Children,” which starts out with a creep-show organ over a thumping beat. The melody that emerges (over trademark Whigs/Twilight swirling guitars) is classic Dulli.

One highlight here is “Idle Hands,” which happens to be an actual rocker, with Dulli playing a Mellotron to provide a “Kashmir”-like hook as Lanegan sings about devilish things: “I suffer you/You suffer me/We are the devil’s plaything.” And speaking of classic rock, check out the “Dear Prudence” guitar on “I Was in Love With You.”

Lanegan gets downright frightening on “All Misery/Flowers.” As the guitars grow thicker and thicker and some instrument sounds as if it’s screaming, Lanegan intones, “I woke up, I was crying/I saw an animal with eyes like mine on fire/I saw my own true love/She was a solid flower.”

No, it’s not easy listening. But Saturnalia is a midnight ride worth making. You can listen to the entire album online at the GTs' MySpace page.

Also recommended:

* R.I.P. by Rocket From the Crypt. Remember the “San Diego sound”? I don’t either. But for about 14 minutes back in the mid-’90s, some civic boosters were pushing Tijuana’s neighbor to the north for that dubious honor. Their best argument was Rocket From the Crypt.

Rocket played a timeless and unrelenting style of rock ’n’ roll, neck deep in the punk ethos but informed by R & B. One thing that always distinguished this band was the inclusion of a horn section — sax player Apollo Nine and trumpet man JC 2000. (And no, Rocket wasn’t one of those tacky ska bands of the era.)

The group had a brief stab at fame, getting picked up by the major label Interscope during the Nirvana-era indie-rock feeding frenzy. Rocket even had a video of the song “Ditch Digger” (a version of which is included on this album) that got some MTV play.

But just as the San Diego scene never quite materialized as a national touchstone, Rocket From the Crypt never quite became a household name. The group braved on for a while, breaking up in 2005 following one last Halloween party in its hometown.

Fortunately, Rocket recorded the show, which was finally (in fact, last month) released in the form of this album. “Here comes the death of Rocket From the Crypt!” an announcer shouts over the synthesized strains of “The Song of the Volga Boatmen.”

The music, as far as I’m concerned, sounds better than any of the studio stuff I’ve heard from the group. You can almost feel the sweat flying out of your speakers as Rocket blasts through its breakneck repertoire.

The songs are fast and furious, many of them — including “A+ in Arson Class,” “Carne Voodoo,” and “Sturdy Wrists” — clocking in at under two minutes. About the only time the musicians stop to take a breath is when they admonish their fans for throwing Halloween costumes on the stage. (“This ain’t no lost and found.”)

But they stretch out on their last song — and yes, assuming no big comeback is in the works, this really is their last song — “Come See, Come Saw.” During an instrumental break, singer Speedo asks the crowd, “Are you satisfied? I said, ‘Are you satisfied?’”

It sounds like the audience is responding “No.” Alas, there was only a minute or so left for Rocket From the Crypt to satisfy.

Some of us still want more.

I downloaded this album, so I haven’t seen the DVD you get with the CD. It’s almost tempting to pick that up.

Blogging SXSW: Starting Wednesday, March 12 (if not before), watch this blog for my updates on the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

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