The Twilight Singers is lead by Greg Dulli, who sings and writes the songs, plays piano and guitar and is its only permanent member. He brings the group to Tucson for a gig Tuesday night at Club Congress. Also on the bill is Austin-based singer-songwriter Jeff Klein, Dulli's labelmate on One Little Indian Records.
Dulli's previous project, Cincinnati's much-celebrated Afghan Whigs, ambitiously attempted to expand the boundaries of what once was called grunge by inflecting it with ironic references to '70s rock, blaxsploitation-soundtrack music and a modicum of psychedelia. But that band struggled to throw off the artistically confining mantle of grunge. So did other estimable colleagues, such as Soundgarden, Screaming Trees and Smashing Pumpkins, and we all know where they ended up.
The Afghan Whigs didn't so much make a bridge between the '90s and '00s as they were trapped between them.
The Twilight Singers represent a more fully realized version of Dulli's vision. The group's 2000 debut, Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers, on which Dulli collaborated with British acid-house duo Fila Brazilia, was interesting and challenging, but it was a transitional work without a clearly defined identity.
On last year's Blackberry Belle (See this week's Rhythm & Views for a review), the Twilight Singers' sound blossomed. The foundation is one of dramatic, moody and literary rock 'n roll, not unlike a combination of Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and a smidgen of Tori Amos.
Atop it are built glorious buttresses and parapets of acoustic guitars, electronic pianos, horn sections, Latin percussion, synthesized strings, funky skitters and undulations sounding like nothing less than the siren's call of depraved abandon. With Blackberry Belle tracks such as "Esta Noche," "Teenage Wristband," "Fat City (Slight Return)" and "Number Nine," Dulli spins tawdry tales of enlightenment through excess, ennui and the dark night of the soul. These are some of the best rock songs of our time.
But the three-song EP Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair, also released in 2003, contains the Twilight Singers' greatest moments yet.
The title track--a cover of the traditional folk tune made famous by Nina Simone--builds dramatically with a combination of delicate piano chords and snarling guitars. It's a lurking menace that also infuses the disc's other two tunes, "Domani" and "Son of the Morning Star," on which piano, mellotron and electronic percussion add shimmer to Dulli's guitarscapes. The result is some organic hybrid of ambient-techno, punctuated by arena-proportion riff rock.
How about a second opinion? Will Hermes, in Entertainment Weekly, wrote that Dulli "re-imagines Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours as a drive down a dark, snaking alt-rock highway with a gutful of vodka, no headlights and a minor riding shotgun." That's maybe a little too heavy on the Harry Crews imagery, but you get the idea.
Even though the Twilight Singers is Dulli's pet project, he can't play the group's songs alone on tour. Missives from the band's publicist tell us that when he hits Tucson, the Twilight Singers will include guitarist Jon Skibic, drummer Bobby Macintyre, bassist Michael Sullivan and keyboardist John Nooney.
The Twilight Singers are polishing off a new covers disc to be released this summer. It will include songs by Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Kate Bush, Skip James, The Ramones, Chaka Khan and George Gershwin, as well as the aforementioned "Black Is the Color. ..."
According to thetwilightsingers.com, some of these tunes will be among those performed when the band hits town, as will a few Afghan Whigs gems.