Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Victims of excess

The Gutter Twins
Score: 5

Hearing a name like the Gutter Twins, you'd be forgiven if you pictured two grizzled dirtbags sitting at the bar, doing shots of whatever burned the most. And you wouldn't be far off. Now, "dirtbag" isn't necessarily a term befitting Greg Dulli or Mark Lanegan, but both have played the role on their albums, and their choice of words here plays up that image. (A "saturnalia," for instance, is equivalent to a bacchanalia, which is basically a drunken orgy.)

As far as team-ups go, they make an intriguing pair: Dulli, the self-immolating womanizer; Lanegan, the haunted rogue. Dulli, the alabaster-soul smoothie; Lanegan, the craggy baritone.

"The Stations" starts out promising, with Lanegan singing lead and with Dulli's backing vocal coming in after the first verse. But right before the one-minute mark, Dulli joins Lanegan at the forefront. And as the track piles on --- a cello, a second electric guitar part, harder snare-playing, harder cymbal-playing, a louder string part --- Dulli and Lanegan belt out their lines as if playing a game of chicken.

Maybe it's because they've spent so much time as frontmen over their careers, but when they sing lead simultaneously, they clash more often than they mesh. The big-and-loud arrangements exacerbate this, making Saturnalia overbearing. This is a shame, because many of the songs have pleasant melodies and had potential. If given a different setting, or with a few tweaks to the vocal parts, some could be quite good.

It brings to mind Lanegan's work with Isobel Campbell. If 2006's Ballad of the Broken Seas had spent its time crashing and booming, their intricate balance of masculinity and femininity would have been lost amid the din.

Whenever Dulli and Lanegan dial it down, as on "The Body," their voices blend better, imparting a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. Likewise, the tracks with more modest accompaniment ("Seven Stories Underground," "Who Will Lead Us?") keep the focus on the album's main appeal: the Twins' interplay.

With two strong personalities, there's no need for heaps of bombast; it simply becomes a distraction.

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