One of the reasons I’m obsessed with The X-Files is Mark Snow’s atmospheric scores. Snow’s ominous presence is at times eerie, haunting, beautiful, tense, and gripping, but just as often, his scores lull the viewer and make a dry 15-minute stretch feel like eternity. Whenever I listen to the Twilight Singers, one of many heralded projects (Afghan Whigs, Gutter Twins) by the prolific badass Greg Dulli, I get the same levels of intensity and boredom. Dynamite Steps, the band’s fifth full length album, might as well be the score to a gritty, dark, and dynamic X-Files story.
I’ve tried numerous times to get hooked on Dynamite Steps and 2006’s Powder Burns. It should have been easy. Dulli’s vocals command your attention as he shouts, soothes, strains, and seduces. His storytelling situates you in the dark underbelly of the city (decadent New Orleans), where sex, drugs, and rock and roll reign supreme, but Dulli focuses his attention on battling inner demons rather than just celebrating the lifestyle. What results is tracks like pathos-and-piano heavy “Get Lucky,” in which the King of Catharsis warns, “Careful when you look into my eyes, you’ll turn to stone and I am not so strong to let you go.” Dulli becomes Sultan of Seedy with lines like, “Spread your legs, insert your alibi” (“On the Corner”). “Waves,” a classic Dulli rocker, is sinister through and through.
Though it’s hard to deny Dulli’s mastery of personae and his music’s believability, it’s easy to lose focus listening to Dynamite Steps. It’s not just certain tracks that are weaker than others or overall inaccessibility; Dulli, like Snow, builds epics that shock and surprise but also drag on. Maybe it’s the synths creating layers of sound that always slowly build to catharsis or maybe the lyrics are too introspective and personal, but I notice myself losing focus way too often. Even the collaborations with Gutter Twins bandmate Mark Lanegan (“Be Invited”) and Ani DiFranco (“Blackbird and the Fox”) aren’t as memorable as they should be.
On Dynamite Steps, Dulli doesn’t uncover massive government conspiracies about extraterrestrial biological entities, but he does face monsters and demons and speak honestly about his weaknesses, more akin to David Duchovny’s Hank Moody character (Californication). Not every moment is thrilling or suspenseful, and you won’t always be in the mood; but if you’re looking for a dark adventure – warts and all – not many do it better than Dulli.
Dynamite Steps is out now on Sub Pop.