Friday, August 04, 2006


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 4, 2006

I liked the Afghan Whigs the first time I heard their song "Retarded" on the Sub Pop compilation The Grunge Years back in 1991. But a year later on their album Congregation, the Whigs covered "The Temple" from Jesus Christ Superstar (a guilty pleasure of mine for about 35 years now). That's when I realized I was going to be a fan of this band and its singer, Greg Dulli, for the long haul.

Sometimes Dulli is the wrathful god ready to take the whip to the money changers. But more often, he's the thief in the temple -- his eye on the jewel in the idol's eye, his hands on the virgins.

The Afghan Whigs folded around the end of the decade, but Dulli raged on with The Twilight Singers, an ever-changing ensemble coloring Dulli's musical visions with 40 shades of dark. Powder Burns is the latest Twilight Singers outing, and it's a mighty one.

After a short, simmering instrumental, Dulli bursts upon the stage with the hard-crunching "I'm Ready," declaring his intentions by the end of the first verse: "I hope I see you out tonight, and I hope we get it on."

Like most of the songs to follow, the sound is big -- guitars, keyboards, and drums work into crescendos. Likewise, Dulli works his voice into inspired frenzies. Sometimes, you don't notice he's been screaming until the song starts to fade.

"Bonnie Brae" is reportedly an autobiographical song about drug abuse. "If she's your master/then get down on your knees and beg for more/I'm not saying it's easier/to live your life like a little whore."

Dulli is at his most evil on "Forty Dollars." With his altered voice harsh and mockingly nasal, he takes the guise of a white street pimp. "Buy your love for $40," he sneers. "I've got love for sale/come on get some before it gets stale." By the end of the tune, he has sardonically quoted two Beatles songs, "All You Need Is Love" and "She Loves You." Dulli actually sings the refrain of the latter, which he also used for the title of a previous Twilight Singers album.

Those aren't the only Beatles references on Powder Burns. During its quieter moments, "There's Been an Accident" features some subtle sounds reminiscent of the East Indian stringed instruments on "Within You, Without You."

Powder Burns has some quieter moments. "Candy Cane Crawl" features background vocals from Ani DiFranco, and "The Conversation" has slide guitar and a string section.

But these serve mainly as apprehensive lulls before the next explosions. After "The Conversation," the album's title song starts out with a sinister guitar riff that might remind Nirvana fans of "Rape Me." This song features strings as well. Almost like a movie soundtrack, the song is easy to imagine as a James Bond theme.

Powder Burns ends with the dreamlike "I Wish I Was," a meandering tune with a muted trumpet, a sad Dixieland trombone, and what sounds like short blasts of radio static.

From the outset, Dulli proclaimed his love for classic soul music. He never stooped to imitative retro shtick, but those with ears to hear always knew his music was flavored by Percy Sledge as much as Iggy Pop, Little Anthony as much as Lou Reed. Powder Burns is packed with Dulli's peculiar brand of soul. It's a not-so-quiet storm that won't let up.

Also recommended:

* The Obliterati
by Mission of Burma. "Are those pterodactyls flying above? I thought those suckers were extinct ... "

That's how a lot of longtime fans of Mission of Burma must feel with this new album by the classic Boston group that rose and fell in the '80s. A couple of years ago MOB did a respectable "comeback" album, OnOffOn, which was a nice surprise.

But with The Obliterati, Mission of Burma -- with three of its four original members -- appears to have really come back. The group sounds as strong as it did in its glory days. This is fresh and vital music. MOB won't be ready for the '80s-nostalgia casino circuit anytime soon.

The band, led by singer/guitarist Roger Miller (no, not that Roger Miller), still does the basic guitar rage -- sometimes discordsometimes almost melodic. The band MOB reminds me of the most is Hüsker Dü.

My favorite cut here is the five-and-a-half minute "Donna Sumeria," which starts out with ominous guitar noodling and a steady stomp of a beat and ends with a feedback-powered instrumental passage that reminds me of Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride."

Nearly as psychedelic is "1001 Pleasant Dreams," which sounds like a distant, harder-edged cousin of The Amboy Dukes' "Journey to the Center of the Mind." (It sounds great on headphones.)

The Obliterati ends with a strange little tune called "Nancy Reagan's Head," which isn't as much political commentary as it is inspired nonsense.

Actually, in those aforementioned glory days, this band only released one proper studio album, Vs. To quote Carly Simon, maybe these are the good old days for Mission of Burma.

* Élan Vital by Pretty Girls Make Graves. This group, fronted by singer Andrea Zollo, is fast, loud, and tuneful, making music that sounds urgent with a hint of playfulness. It's an ambitious album that combines post punk, progressive rock, dub, and psychedelia, a little girl-group sound, and a dab of New Wave. (At times I hear The Waitresses in there.)

Though guitar-centric, keyboards (by Leona Marrs and sometimes multi-instrumentalist J. Clark) give an unforgettable zing. "Domino," for instance, starts out with an electric piano riff that will remind old-timers of "Money (That's What I Want)." Then a Doors-like organ creeps in, as do quick flashes of Wall of Voodoo/Devo electric percussion.

Then there are strange touches like the minute-long "The Magic Hour," with a restless trumpet that sounds like an elephant contemplating stampeding at a circus. This serves as a precursor for the psycho cacophony that begins and ends the final track, "Bullet Charm," a virtual odyssey in which Pretty Girls pulls out all the stops.

Pretty Girls Make Graves reminds me of the Bob Dylan line, "I've got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane." Hope they stick it out.

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