Below the radar

Is there anyone cooler in the world of rock than The Twilight Singers’ Greg Dulli?

It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is “no.”

Former frontman for The Afghan Whigs (lead contender for the most underrated band of the 1990s), current lead singer/songwriter of the California-based Twilight Singers, Dulli is, quite simply, the man.

He’s sexy, dangerous and naughty. His voice is rough and soulful. And, as a songwriter, Dulli is a magician at combining a little Beatles, a little Motown and a little Jay-Z to come up with a catalog that ranks with the best of any songwriter in the past two decades.

Moreover, he somehow still manages to fly below the radar, while continuing to throw out the smooth, slow jams and the deep, dark rockers.

And on the Singers’ latest, Powder Burns, Dulli is at the top of his game.

“I have great feelings about this one,” Dulli said. “We started rehearsing for our tour a week ago. These songs just really flow. And we’re working through 36 songs, so you’ll never see the same show twice.”

With Powder Burns, Dulli now feels like he has enough post-Whigs material that his current band can stand on their own.

“We’re starting to graph everything out – it’s cool,” he said. “I may play some Whigs stuff if I’m feelin’ it on a certain night. But I’ll tell ya, I don’t feel any obligation to. I’m into these songs and I’m really excited about playing them in front of people.”

Dulli has every right to.

Powder Burns sees Dulli and his Singers exploring new ground. And it’s a fascinating listen.

Cinematic, bold and at times abrasive, the LP was a challenge for Dulli.

“The first track that I wrote was ‘I’m Ready,'” a relaxed Dulli said. “And at first, I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t use that one.’ I wrote it on acoustic, but it was rough and weird and different. And then I had to have a little talk with myself. I realized that I had made some rules for myself a long time ago in regards to what a song that I had written could sound like. And I decided that it was time to break those rules.”

“I’m Ready” does.

Scathing and almost industrial, it’s the heaviest rock song that Dulli has written to date. But he counters the sonic canvas with a vocal refrain so catchy that it sticks in your head on first listen.

Melding Dulli’s sexy, driven lyrics in the verse with a soothing choral refrain, it doesn’t sound like anything that he’s ever done before.

Dulli agrees.

“I wanted to accentuate the percussion angle,” he said. “There are sequencers on it too. It just runs on that big guitar riff. We were even calling it ‘South American Sabbath’ as a working title.”

What makes Powder Burns (and all of Dulli’s post-Whigs work) so intriguing, though, is that no track sounds the same.

Where “I’m Ready” dives and charges, “Forty Dollars” sounds like being up at 5 a.m. in the roughest part of New Orleans, looking for something to keep the night going.

And it’s not by coincidence. It’s a city and a mindset that Dulli knows well.

He originally began the tracking for Powder Burns in New Orleans. He recorded the final Whigs’ album, 1965, there. And he had recorded most of the Singers’ 2003 masterpiece, Blackberry Belle, in that same city as well.

Openly declaring his love for all things New Orleans, Dulli had every intention of knocking out Powder Burns in the Fat City. But then Hurricane Katrina hit.

And while he made a quick return to his adopted hometown, the devastation and distress that Katrina brought about seep through the songs on the LP.

“‘Forty Dollars’ is nasty,” Dulli said. “It’s about the bad parts of New Orleans. It’s about a bad time and a bad place and bad thoughts. It has the dark side of New Orleans written all over it. And I’ve probably gotten a split reaction from it so far. Some people think it’s the best thing I’ve done. Some people don’t get it.”

Those who haven’t heard the hook need to give it another big spin.

“Forty Dollars” instantly goes down in the Dulli Top 10.

“Mangy dog without a collar, buy my love for forty dollars,” Dulli sings, in a sick, compressed vocal. “I’ve got love for sale, come on and get some before it gets stale.”

Harkening back to his best work with the Whigs (Gentleman and Black Love), the track sounds like the devil looking to turn a trick.

“Demons come in many forms,” Dulli said. “Some can be slayed. Some can’t. And some are just waiting up the road. I just have to slay them as I meet them.”

It’s an honest comment from one of the most confessional songwriters in the rock world.

Throughout his career, Dulli has been known to – go on diversions, let’s say.

But he’s still making records. And he still sounds like he wants it.

“Bro, I’ve worked three jobs before, just to be able to keep playing music,” he said. “All I really want out of life is to play music. As long as I can eat, pay rent and write, I’m all right. For me, no matter what you do, if you’re Mr. Wall Street or an architect or an artist, you’ve still got to have that alone time. That’s when you’re free. That’s when you get to roam the ethers. If you don’t constantly evolve, you die.”

The Twilight Singers will play back-to-back nights at the Doug Fir Lounge on June 16 and 17. Tickets are still available. Powder Burns is in record stores on May 16.