It is a strange, seemingly inexplicable occurrence: The front men from two bands that were among the least interesting in the great alt-rock explosion of the early nineties—the Screaming Trees and the Afghan Whigs—have made the best, most moving rock records of the year.
But to those who have closely followed the musicians in question—ex–Afghan Whig Greg Dulli and ex–Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan—it shouldn’t be a big surprise. Since the dissolution of the Screaming Trees in the late nineties, Lanegan has revived heavy rock with the supergroup Queens of the Stone Age and has released a series of darkly compelling solo albums. Meanwhile, Dulli, along with his new band, the Twilight Singers, has earned the sort of devoted following associated with jam bands like Phish, thanks to a live show that’s part James Brown revue, part Springsteen rock revival.
Dulli and Lanegan also happen to constitute a mini-scene of their own: They are friends and collaborators (they live in the same Los Angeles neighborhood and recently formed a side project called the Gutter Twins) and they share similar musical obsessions (Lanegan, blues; Dulli, soul). All that said, their new records could hardly be more different. On She Loves You, Dulli shows himself to be a wild extrovert, filling the album with cover songs that he and the Twilight Singers perform live. Lanegan’s Bubblegum, on the other hand, is an intensely introverted work, an album of original material recorded in an almost whispered-in-your-ear intimacy.
Cover albums tend to be self-indulgent stunts, but not for Dulli. She Loves You comes across as the most natural expression of him as an artist. Dulli is a true fan and an unusually sensitive one, too. His onstage cover of OutKast’s “Roses” (unfortunately not included here) transformed the song, which suffers from a surfeit of André 3000’s hamminess in the original version, into a bluesy, romantic plea. Dulli casts that same keen reinterpretive eye over much of She Loves You, tapping songs from an unlikely cast of musicians and songwriters including Björk, Marvin Gaye, and George Gershwin.
“Lanegan’s stripped-to-the-husk growl reverberates with an eerie hum, like he’s bearing down on you.”
Dulli doesn’t always succeed: He strains at Björk’s typically wide-eyed “Hyperballad,” but miraculously finds the plaintive acoustic sweetness buried in Hope Sandoval’s overorchestrated “Feeling of Gaze.” And Dulli mines all the tension of Marvin Gaye’s “Please Stay (Once You Go Away)” without being too emotive. The real achievements of She Loves You, though, are the covers of work by female musicians that Dulli gamely took on. That this hulking singer with a scowly twang of a voice can burrow so deep inside these songs proves Dulli’s profound capacity for empathy as an artist. Dulli may affect a blustering, masculine disregard for the opposite sex onstage, but She Loves You proves that the singer is, to borrow Pauline Kael’s praise of screenwriter Robert Towne, a “man who understands women.”
If She Loves You is effective because Dulli finds himself in the voices of others, Bubblegum works so powerfully because Lanegan lays his own voice bare. It’s a stripped-to-the-husk growl that reverberates with an eerie hum, sounding as though he’s bearing down on you. Yet, unlike the unmalleable bark of Tom Waits, Lanegan has a real sense of melody, especially on several surprisingly tender duets with PJ Harvey.
Though there are a few evocative images—such as “When I’m bombed I stretch like bubblegum”—Lanegan is a fairly conventional songwriter; the lyrics don’t convey much beyond heartbreak or hangover. Sonically, though, Bubblegum is as captivating as Lanegan’s voice. There are fascinating sounds everywhere: sparse drum-machine beats (“When Your Number Isn’t Up”), industrial-style hammering (“Methamphetamine Blues”), and a percussive crunch that’s like boots trudging through snow (“Like Little Willie John”). Bubblegum is a blues record, a powerfully original reinterpretation of the genre. Lanegan understands, as Nick Cave demonstrated on his seminal Murder Ballads, that the blues is not a specific sound but a form that conveys the most direct, honest expression of self.