Tue, May 5, 2020
Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 7:00 pm
Without desire, most of the world’s problems would be solved and it would be a miserable place to live. For the last 30 years, Greg Dulli has been the poet laureate of the bizarre whims and cruel tangents of desire. A foremost authority on the sell-your-soul rewards of carnal lust, the high voltage epiphanies of chemical enhancement, and the serotonin lows left in their wake. The front man of the Afghan Whigs has long been on a first-name basis with his demons, most of whom eventually relented and let him pour them a shot. But then there are the known unknowns at the heart of our nature, the intractable difficulties of love and death, and the recurring human desire for survival and rebirth.
Therein lies Random Desire, the first solo album under Dulli’s own name, following canonized stints at the helm of The Afghan Whigs and The Twilight Singers. The title is a play on “random selection,” which refers to a process that researchers use to pick participants for a study. When using this method, every single member of a population has an “equal chance of being chosen as a subject.” Recontextualized, it allows us to realize the randomness of existence, the odd alchemy of emotions, chemistry, and circumstance that baffle us to no end. The reasons why artists write songs and why listeners need them. And even if the answers are evasive, that’s no excuse to quit searching.
Random Desire started in the aftermath of the last Whigs record, 2017’s In Spades, which Pitchfork named one of the best rock records of the year, hailing it as a “heavy, menacing work of indie rock majesty…thrilling and unsettling.” Drummer Patrick Keeler was about to take a short sabbatical to record and tour with his other band, The Raconteurs. Dulli’s longtime collaborator, bassist John Curley went back to school, and there was the tragic death of the band’s guitarist, Dave Rosser.
In response, Dulli returned to his teenage bedroom roots, finding musical inspiration via the model of one-man-band visionaries Prince and Todd Rundgren. The Los Angeles-by-way-of-Hamilton Ohio native wrote nearly every part of the record from piano lines to drums to bass riffs. As always, the music came first and the lyrics were completed later. Recording and writing way stations included his home in Silver Lake, the village of Crestline high up in mountains above San Bernardino, and New Orleans. But the bulk was finished amidst the arid beauty and stark isolation of Joshua Tree (at the studio of engineer Christopher Thorne. Dulli handled most instrumentation, but an all-star cast of characters appear across the track-listing including The Whigs’ guitarist Jon Skibic and multi-instrumentalist Rick G. Nelson, Mathias Schneeberger (Twilight Singers), pedal steel wizard, upright bassist, and physician Dr. Stephen Patt, and drummer Jon Theodore (Queens of the Stone Age, The Mars Volta).
If many of his grunge-era peers are tapped out or resting beneath, Dulli has proven that creativity can be infinite with a voodoo imagination that tilts towards constant revolution. A gris gris man in the vein of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Nick Cave, or the dearly departed Purple One, Dulli’s never made the same album twice, shapeshifting through funk, soul, hip-hop, jazz, and bloody knuckled rock n’ roll without wandering too far from the essence of what defines his sound. But don’t expect your older brother’s Afghan Whigs. There are serrated guitar attacks, sure, but there are also threnodies built atop sepulchral piano lines, plaintive acoustic hymnals, goth-rock benders, Bedouin caravan raggas, and the occasional hip-hop 808s slap.
The bulk of Random Desire cohered in a six-month whirlwind last year. After writing songs for the previous 18 months, Dulli scrapped all but “A Ghost” and “Scorpio.” Into the void came a narcotic lovers lament like “Sempre,” which gathers dark strength from the fatalistic comfort of knowing that things might never get any easier. It’s a bittersweet kiss off to a lover, laughing at their cruelness with a knowing sneer. As a wise man once said, it’s that ether that makes your soul burn slow. There is “Pantomima,” the Spanish and Italian word for “pantomine,” rooted in the everyday deceptions of people who babble with borrowed words. It almost plays out like a Go Team! song, if the squad lost the game and consoled themselves by letting chaos engulf them. The tone is set from the sardonic taunts of the album’s first bars: desolation, come and get it.
“Marry Me” is a midnight of the soul number full of delicate guitar and moonlit ambience, a pedal steel sighing like a woeful regret in the distance -- the words full of ambiguous questions and recollected sin. “It Falls Apart” floats with aquatic translucency, introducing the album’s experimental second half and the gut-punch feeling that whatever romance was sparked will soon be extinguished. “Scorpio” boasts the de facto Prince nod with a middle portion borrowing the symbol’s pitched up Camille falsetto. While “Lockless” pays tribute to the creative benefits of loneliness, the shock that you still possess the ability to be surprised and the numbing revelation that your worst suspicions usually come true. “Slow Pan” is the slinking finale, the end credits with a Last Waltz grace. The screen fades out as a harp angelically hums (as the holy spirit of Dorothy Ashby would’ve intended).
Clocking in at a lean 37 minutes, Random Desire is a clinic put on by a veteran master operating at the height of his powers, offering evidence of the hard-fought and weary wisdom learned from setbacks and victories alike. A lucid, confident and self-assured document of the songs of experience, the perils of existence, and the possibilities that offer themselves anew with each breath. Another death and rebirth from an outlaw who has seen it all and somehow lived to tell.
When Lou Reed friend Bill Bentley, now working as an A&R director for Vanguard Records, read Joseph Arthur’s moving eulogy in American Songwriter magazine, he approached him to record an album of Lou Reed songs. “Bill told me, ‘Don’t overthink it,’” says Joseph. Arthur set himself up in his Brooklyn studio last December and proceeded to cut twelve of his favorites—using only acoustic guitar and bass, piano and vocals. “The only way I know to give new life to something as rich with life as Lou’s songs and recordings is to go about them in a completely different way. No drums or electricity.”
By stripping these songs down to their essence, Arthur allows us to hear Reed’s music and especially his lyrics, with brand-new ears, from the well-known (“Walk on the Wild Side,” “Heroin,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Satellite of Love” and the first song he attempted, “Coney Island Baby”) to the more obscure (Magic and Loss’ “Sword of Damocles,” Set the Twilight Reeling’s “NYC Man,” Lou Reed’s “Wild Child” and “Stephanie Says,” later reworked as Berlin’s “Caroline Says”).
“I put my soul into this record,” says Arthur. “It was like getting to hang out with Lou again, being inside his head.”
Indeed, Lou lets you listen to these songs as if you’ve never heard them before. “I only wish he was alive to have heard them,” says Arthur, who wrote in his remembrance, “I’m trying not to focus on the fact that I had him in my life; that I loved him, and he loved me, and not think about the lost opportunity to see him again. We can’t cross over and we can’t come back and those that go before us become one with the mystery of everything. Lou was always of that mystery.”
Lou Reed was not only one of Joseph Arthur’s musical inspirations, he was a good friend, and that “Family Love,” as the singer/songwriter/painter/designer describes the pair’s relationship, can be heard in Lou, his simultaneous eulogy and tribute to the man’s life. Reed was on hand at New York’s Club Fez back in 1996 when Arthur performed a live audition for Peter Gabriel, which earned him his initial deal as the first American artist signed to Gabriel’s Real World label. Afterward, the two went out to eat ice cream, and found themselves sitting next to Dolly Parton.
“He was always just true to himself and what he was,” admired Arthur, whose liner notes for the album states, despite his punk reputation, “Lou was lovable… Everyone I knew loved him, whether they knew him or not.”
Lou offers a glimpse behind the curtain, both homage and a way to breathe new life into Reed’s remarkably deep, but consistent, catalog for future generations to come. Lou works as a cohesive whole, even though the individual songs come from all periods in Reed’s career, from the Velvet Underground to his solo output.
The Akron, Ohio-born Arthur was a jazz fusion bassist when he first discovered the Velvet Underground in his late teens (“It was the perfect timing,” he recalls, since he had only begun singing himself), and forged an impressive solo career that began with 1997’s Big City Secrets, as the first American signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, later joining Gabriel’s WOMAD tour in Europe. Two years later, the EP Vacancy, with an album cover he created and designed himself—as he did with most of his releases—earned a 2000 Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package.
Arthur released his sophomore album, Come to Where I’m From, produced by T Bone Burnett and Tchad Blake, in 2000, his last album for Real World before putting out the double album Redemption’s Son on Universal Music Group’s Enjoy Records in 2002. He followed with Our Shadows Will Remain on Vector Recordings, making the album in New Orleans, New York City, London and Prague, with string arrangements provided by the City of Prague Philharmonic. In 2006, Arthur started his own label, Lonely Astronaut Records, releasing a visual collection of his artworks in a book titled We Almost Made It, along with his fifth studio album, The Invisible Parade, recorded in Berlin and Los Angeles. His song, “In the Sun,” was covered by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Coldplay’s Chris Martin for a digital Hurricane Katrina EP sold on iTunes, which included six different versions, one a remix by Justin Timberlake. A sixth album, Let’s Just Be, came out in 2007, followed by Temporary People in 2008, both recorded with his back-up band the Lonely Astronauts.
Arthur was also a member of two super groups, including Fistful of Mercy with Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison, releasing the album As I Call You Down in 2010, also collaborating with Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament in the band RNDM. He released three solo albums over the past three years: The Graduation Ceremony, The double-CD Redemption City and last year’s The Ballad of Boogie Christ, which he successfully financed through online crowd-funding site, Pledge Music.
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001