Never one to rest, Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli is set to release Random Desire, his first proper solo album, on February 21st through Royal Cream/BMG.
While fans of his main outfit had plenty of material to absorb in the dozen years – 2001 to 2012 – the Whigs were dormant, mainly through the Twilight Singers and a short stop with the Gutter Twins, it has taken until 2020 for an album under Dulli’s own name alone to appear. That in mind, 2005’s Amber Headlights was also released under Dulli’s name, but the album was largely comprised of Twilight Singers’ material that became derailed by the January 2002 death of Dulli’s close friend Ted Demme. The band redirected their efforts into writing and recording Blackberry Belle for release in 2003, and Amber Headlights was finished afterward.
In fact, February 2020 marks nine years since Dynamite Steps, the last proper Twilight Singers album, during which period the Whigs reformed and released both 2014’s Do to the Beast and 2017’s In Spades. These releases featured new Whigs’ Guitarist Dave Rosser, a veteran who had worked with Ani DiFranco as well as both the Gutter Twins and the Twilight Singers. Tragically, it was during the recording of In Spades that Rosser was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer, and he died on the eve of the impending North American tour. Once those dates closed, the subsequent break allowed Dulli to reconvene and mourn his friend and partner. Whigs’ Drummer Patrick Keeler took time to work with his other project, the Rancoteurs, and Bassist John Curley took a break to study, leaving Dulli to write, and write, and write, compiling an album’s worth of songs, only to scrap nearly everything except for “A Ghost” and “Scorpio,” which survived long enough to appear here on Random Desire.
Coming at you with 10 songs in total, opener “Pantomima” arrives as concordant madness, with a driving bassline holding the floor for impromptu percussion and scratchy guitar tracks. Dulli wastes no time pulling every trick out of his vocal bag, with loud screeches appearing throughout the higher pitches and garbled lines. Keeping with the larger lyrical theme, he intones: “Pantomima / so you said it / I believed you / don’t you forget it.” The accompanying video adds significant padding on either end of the track, particularly the introduction, and sets the stage (quite literally) for a glimpse into the life of Artist Bob Fosse, played here by Director Phil Harder. As mused by Dulli in some press for the album, “’Pantomima’, the Spanish and Italian word for ‘pantomime,’ [is] rooted in the everyday deceptions of people who babble with borrowed words.“
“It Falls Apart” is a bit of an oxymoron; during the somber opening notes, the lyrics have a bit of kick to them: “Better get down / cuz the streets are poppin, o yeah / high in the sky / I can see you’re bobbin your head / keys on the table / nobody’s looking, o yeah / I found you waiting there.” Later, while the chorus lifts musically, it is the words that are the downer: “I feel the night surround / enveloping without a sound / it comes around to gather me / and falls apart to let me go. “Semper” has the trademark Dulli vocal mumble again, and starts with a warm meandering bass line before ending with aggressive but fading guitar strumming.
The maudlin progression of “Marry Me” enters as a slow acoustic number, with lush accompaniment, is almost into rambling Randy Newman territory. The sequence never quite leaps out of the fog set by the initial notes, and the ending bars fade off into the titular lapping waves of “The Tide.” Dulli has such a distinct voice that he is able to warble across several different styles and techniques, and “The Tide” is a prime example. The track opens with some soft ocean sounds quickly disrupted by the loud cadence of Dulli’s voice, eventually ending on a soft whisper and fragile piano. The same wide vocal palette returns in “Lockless,” the makeshift title-track. Contrast this technique with “Scorpio,” the next track, whose cold, biting piano line rises up to issue a challenge to the soaring vocal spirit of Dulli, who is soon accompanied by guitar, bass, and percussion to form a proper rock song. Some odd B-roll spoken dialogue stands in place of a proper chorus.
Dulli mans the majority of the instruments and work here, but Whigs compatriots Jon Skibic and Rick G. Nelson also lend hands, as does Twilight Singers’ contributor Mathias Schneeberger, rock star physician Dr. Stephen Patt, and Drummer Jon Theodore (Queens of the Stone Age, formerly of the Mars Volta). The common thread throughout Random Desire is the trademark vocal style of Dulli. From an energetic mumble on “Semper” to the stumbling bauble of “Marry Me,” wrapping with the hauntingly angelic work on “Slow Pan,” Dulli—never one to shy from taking center stage of his existing projects—takes time to carefully fill the last bits of space with his voice throughout these tracks. Brief, tiny daggers arrive, plucked on a harp, to close the track and the album, and even the absence of his voice is enough to fill the minds of listeners with anticipation.
As may be natural for a singer-songwriter, Dulli forms a significant presence in each of his current and former projects. His contributions here to Random Desire are almost subdued in their effectiveness, as if the mere suggestion of volume, or aggression, or overbearance is enough to have the full, actual effect. Whatever his motivation, on Random Desire, Dulli has a strong, cheerful effect, as powerful on the driving opener “Pantomima” as he is on the quirky “Lockless,” or the nearly monotone portions of “It Falls Apart.”
All these factors in mind, Dulli has done himself a service taking a bit of a backseat on his own solo album, and the results are amazing. That is why Cryptic Rock gives Random Desire 4.5 out of 5 stars.