When Greg Dulli disbanded his sputtering alt-rock combo The Afghan Whigs at the turn of the millennium to concentrate on the lower-key electro-folk collective The Twilight Singers, the change played into a lot of his worst artistic instincts. At their best, The Afghan Whigs were raging and sultry, giving Dulli a chance to work out his loutish obsession with hedonism in big-sounding rock songs full of nail-biting drama. At their worst, the Whigs were overbearing and self-indulgent, and Dulli carried both qualities into The Twilight Singers' first couple of albums, which tested listener patience with somnambulant pacing, synthetic soundscapes, and painful soul-baring.
Now reportedly off drugs and recommitted to straight-ahead rock 'n' roll, Dulli has recorded the most immediately engaging Twilight Singers record yet. After a short instrumental, Powder Burns opens in earnest with "I'm Ready," an statement of rockist intentions and spiritual renewal, right down to the chorus: "I'm ready to love somebody." He proceeds through a set of songs that could've been excerpted from The Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen or Black Love, with their swirling strings, pounding piano, R&B backbeats, gospel choirs, and live-wire guitars.
But as was the case with the Whigs toward the end of their run, there's a distressing structural uniformity to the material on Powder Burns. The songs tend to follow the same straight-ahead beat and escalating melody, whether ballad or rocker. And though Dulli has a lot to say about the insatiable needs of thieves and liars, the dark-toned tough-guy act gets pretty wearying. It's like an audio version of A Million Little Pieces—not as phony, but just as pushy.