Recording of May 2011: Dynamite Steps
Sub Pop SPCD 844 (CD). 2011. Greg Dulli, prod.; Brenndan McGuire, Ben Mumphrey, Steve Nalepa, Mike Napolitano, others, engs. AAD? TT: 43:03
Unleash "Retarded," the unforgettable first track of Up In It (1990), the Afghan Whigs' first Sub Pop albumthe one with the eerie stitched-up hand on the coverand immediately the madness seeps out. No one has ever done the angry leer and tormented spat quite like AW singer/songwriter Greg Dulli. As the charismatic leader of one of the nastiest, hardest-edged live acts ever to prowl a 1990s indie-rock stage, he and the Whigs were one of the Yo MTV 120 Minute generation's most striking actsone that combined buzzy guitar thunder with odd but welcome leanings toward classic R&B that persist to this day in the Twilight Singers. The assault of the Cincinnati-based Whigs was led by Dulli, a seemingly normal Ohio boy whose unhinged wailing, self-flagellating lyrics, and shrieking, Cobra-like stage persona made him a rock star: dangerous candy for the girls, unhinged fury for the fellas.
Although the Whigs barely made it into the new century before splitting up in 2001 (a reunion seems highly unlikely), some of Dulli's old ferocity resurfaces three tracks into Dynamite Steps, in the urgent "Waves," which mixes clouds of swarming guitars Ö la the Whigs with his pleading half-screams. In "On the Corner" (not a Miles Davis cover), the first new single in five years from Dulli's post-Whigs band, he again becomes the sinister exhorter committed to evil alive with lyrics like, "From the Field / The Border / Gomorrah / On the Corner / Lick your lips / Desire / The Liar / Becomes Divider." Thus loosed, in the next number, "Gunshots," Dulli exults in the seductive power he still sees in a world of darkness and damage: "Gunshots, baby / Let's cut through the crowd."
The overall mood and lyrical bent of Dynamite Steps clearly work in the same vaguely horror-movie drift Dulli has been enamored of since forming the vampirically titled Twilight Singers. The album's spooky gray-and-black packaging and inside photo of a winged vampire-clown thing (one of the Wicked Witch of the West's flying monkeys, all growed up?) only add to the Goth flavor, as does repeated use of such comic-book terms as demons and dark circles, and menacing couplets like "Covering the walls in Shadow / Faster than the sound of speed / Never seen no devil / Now it's all that I can see." Yet longtime fans will know that Dulli isn't trying to tap into the current (yet mercifully fading) mania for all things fanged. As always, it's the inner monsters that Dulli does battle with, and writes about with such vicious vividness.
Yet while Dulli's overarching subject may not have changed, his craft has become more intricate and careful. In the first track, "Last Night in Town," he builds from plaintive acoustic piano into a soaring, layered pop tune. The opening of the title track deftly mixes electronics and an acoustic guitar. In "On the Corner," the fabulous but very simple and unaffected use of a drum machine adds much before the tune works, to great effect, the loud/soft/loud dynamic that all '90s alt-rock players seem to have in their DNA. In "Get Lucky" Dulli mixes acoustic piano, cellos, and violins with one of his most unaffected and in-tune vocal performances ever.
Twilight Singers guitarist Dave Rosser, bassist Scott Ford, and guest drummer Gene Trautmann all provide solid support throughout, though it's the record's guest listheaded by Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), Dulli's partner in the side project Gutter Twinsthat adds buzz. Singer-songwriter/painter Joseph Arthur plays harmonica on several tracks, while Ani DiFranco, who seems an odd choice, adds her voice to the duet that is "Blackbird and the Fox." Nick McCabe, guitarist for the now-defunct UK act The Verve, plays guitar on "Be Invited."
Dynamite Steps was recordedor, as Dulli puts it, "shot on location"in Los Angeles and New Orleans, where he has homes, and was worked on by a slew of engineers. It does sound large, and blurred in spots, but it can also be very delineated and detailed in the quiet spotsa necessary ingredient of the loud/soft approach. Dulli even uses a vocal processor with admirable judiciousness.
Perhaps the strongest collection since the Twilight Singers' second record, Blackberry Belle (2003), Dynamite Steps is, again, Greg Dulli at his bestor, as he put it in a recent interview in the TheDailySwarm.com, "The darkness never leaves. You have to learn how to let the sunshine in and get your Vitamin C on. You don't want to find yourself running to stand still: you want to see a new road ahead."Robert Baird