CD Review of Saturnalia by The Gutter Twins
Recommended if you like
The Afghan Whigs, Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age
Sub Pop
The Gutter Twins: Saturnalia

Reviewed by Michael Fortes


ravelly-voiced alt-rock mainstay Mark Lanegan has had one of the more respectable post-grunge career paths of his peers. Since the demise of Screaming Trees, Lanegan has gone on to record his own critically acclaimed work (2004’s Bubblegum immediately comes to mind), but it has been his collaborations that have drawn the most attention – he has appeared on too many other people’s records to keep count. However, the best-selling of the four Queens of the Stone Age albums with which he’s graced his presence (2002’s Songs For the Deaf) has probably kept him in the collective consciousness longer than even his left-field collaboration with former Belle & Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell (2006’s Ballad of the Broken Seas).

Somewhere along the way, Lanegan also quietly slipped into some of former Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers sessions. Lanegan even tagged along for the last full Twilight Singers tour, making appearances for, among other things, a stunning rendition of Massive Attack’s compilation-only chestnut “Live With Me.” Fortunately, Lanegan found time in his busy schedule to put this performance down for posterity on last year’s Twilight Singers EP A Stitch in Time.

Gutter Twins

Dulli, for his part, has remained true to his promise to be more prolific following the 2001 demise of the Afghan Whigs. He has averaged one album or EP per year over the past five years, a much brisker schedule than the every-two-to-three-years pace of the Whigs.

And yet it’s been about five years since this once-alleged full-on collaboration between Dulli and Lanegan was first discussed. Now that Saturnalia is finally here, the bar for “most darkly yet spiritually transcendent release of the year” has been set. Anyone who has any ambition to reach for the heavens while staying rooted in the earthly mire will have to contend with Dulli and Lanegan. “Did all I did just to get through to heaven,” sing the “Satanic Everly Brothers” (as Dulli has jokingly referred to the duo) in the rhythmically off-kilter “All Misery / Flowers.” Then they take the old blues cliché of the backdoor man and take some of the glamour out of it: “Little girls might twitch at the way I itch / But the way I burn, it’s a son of a bitch.” As one of the half-dozen tracks on Saturnalia that Dulli and Lanegan wrote together, it’s perhaps the most ominous, gripping piece of music either of them have done, alone or together.

Actually, Dulli’s devil-horned nickname is somewhat misleading. There are no outright odes to Satan on this record, and the devil is only mentioned in one song, “Idle Hands,” which brilliantly cops that classic AC/DC stomp and mixes it with some eerie Mellotron. In fact, an upward-glancing perspective informs the album from the first three songs, and then re-enters most effectively via Mark Lanegan’s folk-tinged, Johnny Cash-cum-Keith Richards delivery in “Who Will Lead Us” and “Seven Stories Underground.” While invoking God and heaven isn’t always the coolest thing to do in rock, retaining the imagery without the preaching can make for good theater. That’s certainly the case here.

Though Dulli and Lanegan made a conscious effort not to repeat any past achievements on Saturnalia, the pathos of “I Was in Love With You” could have easily found its way onto a Twilight Singers or Afghan Whigs record. And yet, even though this is the one song on Saturnalia in which Lanegan is absent as both a vocalist and a songwriter, the musical universe the two minds created is so strong, it wouldn’t be surprising to find out if he was at least in the room when it was recorded.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the Gutter Twins is the fearless way in which two icons of ‘90s alt-rock have made the leap forward into new musical territory without completely losing touch with their past, or themselves. That the results are so enjoyable – in some ways more enjoyable than their past works – is the best surprise of all.

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