THE GUTTER TWINS / CARINA ROUND, 11TH AUGUST 2008, OXFORD ZODIAC
You sense that this may just be Carina Round’s big break. Long talked up by the West Midlands blogging fraternity (well, RussL and Phill, at least) as well as a good friend of Jenni’s, the Doon Mackichan lookalike makes a big impression, judging by the fact that she manages to coax a backing chorus out of the crowd in a city where attempting to elicit even enthusiastic applause usually meets with as much success as trying to extract blood from a particularly bloodless stone.
The PJ Harvey comparisons are both obvious and justified (albeit the spiky, leather-trousered, Steve Albini-produced confrontationalist of Rid Of Me, rather than the ethereal, quietly vulnerable, diaphanously-dressed faerie of White Chalk). Rather like Derek Meins, she’s a boldly flamboyant performer of songs that are self-consciously indulgent but remarkably compelling because of (rather than despite) their schizophrenia and histrionics. The only time her confidence and self-belief waver is when she interrupts her final song, embarrassed to have forgotten to thank the headliners.
Back in the summer of 1996, on holiday in Yorkshire, I was leafing through a copy of now long defunct music mag Select when I came across a reviewer claiming the three best records to have come out of America that year were Rocket From The Crypt’s Scream Dracula Scream, Afghan Whigs’ Black Love and Screaming Trees’ Dust. Being an impressionable young teenager with an instinctive aversion to anything British that wasn’t Radiohead, I went out and bought all three albums as soon as I got home. Little did I know then that twelve years later, the leading lights of two of those bands would have forged a black-hearted alliance as The Gutter Twins, and that I’d be about to witness their first UK gig.
I’m not alone. The occasion has drawn lots of balding blokes of a certain age out of the woodwork – the sort of blokes who’ve only been to one gig so far this year, and that a trip to see Bob Mould in Manchester – and the room’s full of expectant faces.
When the duo finally make their entrance, some time after their rent-a-band have got into position, they’re dressed in classic prince of darkness chic – no Hawaiian shirts or Bermuda shorts, Mark Lanegan’s blue jeans the only concession to colour (and that could still be a trick of the light and my eyes). The wiry and gnarled Lanegan adopts his characteristic pose, his right hand clasping the mic stand tight as he uses it as a crutch. Next to him stands Greg Dulli, who after lengthy deliberation (David Mitchell? Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan?) I decide is the figure who would emerge if Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet was to be accidentally locked in a pie factory over a Bank Holiday weekend.
Others might be here purely for the opportunity to wallow in nostalgia and catch up with a pair of grunge survivors, but I’m hoping that this will see them more than just trading on former glories and that they’ll be able to bring debut LP Saturnalia to majestic life.
As it turns out, sadly, they aren’t.
Things start off well enough with the album’s opening salvo of ‘The Stations’ and ‘God’s Children’, and other tracks do seem more potent live, most notably ‘Bete Noire’ but also ‘Idle Hands’, which I’d previously thought little more than a stodgy crumb to have fallen from Queens Of The Stone Age’s table. But there’s no room in the set for what is probably my favourite song, Dulli’s slow-burning ‘I Was In Love With You’, and most of what is accommodated sounds – as it does on record – too straight, too conventional, too safe, too ponderous, too filled-out and comfortable to be anything more than mildly diverting.
Part of the problem is that Lanegan, possessor of arguably the most distinctive voice in rock, is too low in the mix – in league with his other recent collaborator, Isobel Campbell, his gravelly growl would probably still rumble through, but here it’s too often buried beneath guitars and keyboards. It feels like being disrespectful, but I can’t help but wish there was less Dulli.
In the encore they tease the crowd into a game of ‘Name That Tune’ by segueing from a passage of ‘Papillon’ by Dulli’s post-Whigs outfit The Twilight Singers into the closing segment of Screaming Trees’ ‘Shadow Of The Season’, before playing Lanegan’s ‘Hit The City’ in its electrifying entirety. That it’s the only moment that inspires genuine excitement speaks volumes about a live show that never really catches fire – and an album that, while solid enough, doesn’t come close to matching up to initial expectations of the intoxicating darkness the unholy union might be capable of conjuring up.