Saturnalia is the anticipated first album from The Gutter Twins, the collaboration forged in late 2003 by Mark Lanegan and fellow maverick singer-songwriter Greg Dulli. Saturnalia finds the axis Dulli nicknamed "the Satanic Everly Brothers" going even deeper into the shadows than ever before. Mystical, unpredictable, ultimately masterful, the album both embodies and defies any expectations suggested by the principals' individual notoriety. Pointedly not resting on the sonic laurels of their previous successes, Saturnalia instead proves rootsy but Baroque, handmade yet modernist, teeming with siren melodies that don't resolve. Produced by Dulli and Lanegan along with the band's unofficial third member Mathias Schneeberger.
Review by Marisa Brown
The Gutter Twins' first full-length record may not have shown up until early 2008, but Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan had been working together since the early part of the millennium, Dulli with Lanegan on his solo work and Lanegan with Dulli's group the Twilight Singers, even touring as part of the band and showing up twice on the 2006 EP A Stitch in Time. It therefore makes sense that much of Saturnalia sounds quite similar to the Twilight Singers' material, particularly the songs where Dulli takes full or most of the writing and singing duties. This is by no means a bad thing; Dulli is all powerful, surging hooks and biting, twisting electric guitars, and Lanegan's baritone -- when he sings both lead and background vocals -- give the words an extra power, subtlety, and resonance, helped no doubt by the visceral growls he adds to lines in "Bête Noire" and "Circle the Fringes." These are songs drawn from the Gothic tradition, where good and evil and pleasure and pain crisscross and entwine facilely and indelibly, where the secular and the sacred have no clear defining lines. Religious imagery weaves its way in and out, as much a part of the tracks as are the sex and violence and drugs and all the other Lanegan/Dulli constants. "I hear the Rapture's coming," they sing in "The Stations," recalling both life and death as Dulli's snarl rises over his partner's moan, while Lanegan takes the lead on the gospel-inspired "Who Will Lead Us?" and the ominous storm cloud of "All Misery/Flowers," which starts with "Little girls might twitch at the way I hitch" and ends with the refrain of "I tell you my story so that you might save me," as Dulli sings softly behind. So well, in fact, do the two voices work together, that the one track to which only one contributed (Dulli wrote and sings alone on "I Was in Love with You") seems almost out of place, shiny nickels and dimes on the offering plate stuffed with bills. Saturnalia is mysticism and hedonism, saints and sinners, dark and light, but this is no clear-cut Manichaean collaboration. Both Lanegan and Dulli represent this, both contain all the good and the bad they sing about, sometimes at different moments but very often together, and it's that joined duality, that very disturbingly human quality, telling us things about ourselves we'd rather not acknowledge, that makes the album so absolutely alluring.
The Gutter Twins
[Sub Pop; 2008]
While so many other 1990s alt-rock acts are rehashing their hits on nostalgia package tours, Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan have pushed ahead musically without having to rely heavily on past triumphs. Dulli continues his surprisingly tenacious Twilight Singers project, and Lanegan has released six fairly well-received solo albums, although he's better known for collaborating with Isobel Campbell and Queens of the Stone Age.
Dulli and Lanegan have spent most of the 2000s collaborating flirtatiously, touring and recording together-- check out Lanegan's vocals on the Twilight Singers' cover of "Flashback" by Fat Freddy's Drop, from their 2006 EP A Stitch in Time-- but Saturnalia is their long-in-the-works debut as the Gutter Twins, a partnership that Dulli describes as "the Satanic Everly Brothers." The "Satanic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" might be a little more apt: The album finds them bursting forth from their studio, guns blazing but no clean getaway in sight. Musically, Saturnalia, named after the Roman festival where slaves and masters switch roles, is a concentrated dose of their usual badassery, never straying too far from the territory Dulli explored on the last three Singers albums, and even includes many of the same collaborators: wayward troubadour Joseph Arthur, Mathias Schneeberger, Dave Rosser, Martina Topley-Bird, Queen of the Stone Age Troy Van Leeuwen, and New Orleans organist Quintron (who illuminates "Seven Stories Underground").
The project's sense of familiarity, however, is not a negative. "Each to Each" revisits the eerie electronica of the Twilight Singers' debut, a welcome compliment to Dulli's vocals courtesy of guitarist Jeff Klein and synth player Natasha Schneider. With its odd chorale intro and a string arrangement that shifts chords tectonically, "Idle Hands" builds to a chorus that could scale a skyscraper. Scavenging the gutter, though, Dulli and Lanegan come across some new flourishes. Discordant strings add tension to opener "The Stations", which marches along at a midtempo before Schneeberger's churchly organ raises it aloft. Before the Twins can build to the expected finale, the song simply fades out, redemption thwarted. "God's Children" settles into a Whigsy blaxpoitation mood before drummer Greg Wieczorek hammers out a soaring chorus. "Who Will Lead Us?" is part folk and part gospel, so subdued that the tension never releases but bubbles into "Seven Stories Underground".
With a billion cigarettes between them, the Twins are well matched vocally: Lanegan sings like he's rising from the dead, Dulli like he's falling from grace. Together, they can make a line like "We're gonna have some fun" sound utterly sinister, which lends these lecherously slow burners their peculiar gravity. Lanegan sings "All Misery / Flowers" like a Tom Waits song, his vocal delivery tripping against the song's rhythms as he conjures junkie afflictions: "Little girls might twitch at the way I itch, but the way I burn, it's a son of a bitch." Dulli closes the album with "Front Street", which begins, somewhat morbidly, with the chirping of birds. It's no joke, but a chiaroscuro contrast with the song's pitch subject. "People to use, lovers to break, handful of pills, no life to take," he sings, flirting with the masochist lover/confidence man he perfected 15 years ago on Gentlemen and seemed to abandon with the Twilight Singers.
It's no coincidence that Sub Pop is releasing Saturnalia: The label was home to both the Whigs and the Trees, as well as to Lanegan the solo artist. These songs plumb their persistent themes of sin and redemption, damnation and salvation, but in a way that sounds like they're taking stock of their own long and undeniably tough careers, in which disappointment, death, and drug addiction are public record. As such, the album possesses a gruesome attraction for fans of both musicians, who will hear it as a bloodletting, as well as for newcomers, who may hear it as a violent shoot-out-- Dulli and Lanegan against the world, their fates undecided. The Twins push each other to go darker and deeper, to bare more of their souls, so Saturnalia sounds heavier, bleaker, simultaneously more desperate and more content than anything either musician has done in years. As they both sing on "All Misery / Flowers, "I did all I did just to get through to heaven." Dulli and Lanegan haven't reached the Pearly Gates yet, but that's our good fortune.
-Stephen M. Deusner, March 04, 2008