A bridge between Dulli's work with Afghan Whigs and his latter Twilight Singers recordings, this disc collects songs written in 2001 and shelved after Dulli's friend, the director Ted Demme, died in early 2002. The songs were recorded during these early '00 years, drawing together a band that included Jon Skibic on guitar, Mathias Schneeberger on organ and other keyboards, Michael Sullivan on bass and Matt Hergert on drums. Dulli augmented that core band with half a dozen other players; the ubiquitous and talented Petra Haden sings on a couple of tracks.
Amber Headlights' long gestation period may account, partly, for the old-fashioned feel of several of the tracks. The hard rockers, particularly "So Tight," have an early 1990s alterna-vibe, reminiscent of The Replacements at the high end and Spin Doctors at the low. In fact, if there's a recent record that Amber Headlights calls to mind, it's Tommy Stinson's Village Gorilla Head, also well constructed and played, also subtly, disturbingly uncontemporary. Still, once you've made your peace with the fact that Amber Headlights sounds like FM radio of a decade or so ago, the songs begin to take over.
With Afghan Whigs, Dulli was one of the first to incorporate R&B and funk into the alternative nation sound, and here again, there's a hard-soul, funk-tinged edge to the rock format. "So Tight" rides a white-boy funk beat under its verse and slips a wah-wah'd solo in at the mid-point. Dulli's voice is, by nature, rough and blues-leaning; his howl of "It's Friday... I'm lonely..." sounds like a lost but unrepentant soul. Yet for all the grit, the song veers sharply toward the slick in the chorus, breaking for Top 40 predictability in its ringing choruses and layered vocals. "Cigarettes" is better, starting with a stark drum beat and Dulli observing, "The cigarettes are gonna kill me" in his trademark rasp. The chorus, again, feels like it belongs to a different, less adventurous song; yet though its uplift feels contrived, it carries you along all the same.
Oddly enough, it is in the slower songs, beginning with "Domani," that Dulli hits his stride. Here his cigarette-ravaged croon flirts with a liquid blues guitar line, leaving dead-black spaces for the words to sink in. There's a big, guitar-led break that comes between the verses, but it subsides quickly, shrinking to subtle licks that support the melody. There's less effort, less striving, less stress in this song, and Dulli sounds all the better for it.
"Domani" hints at what Dulli's capable of, but the payoff comes later, with the two tracks that close the disc. "Wicked" begins in a haze of droning guitars, Dulli whispering "This world is wicked" into a close-held mic. Lavishly orchestrated, the cut builds textures from synthetic strings, harmonium, guitars, frantic drums and an anxious piano line, yet it never feels heavy. The tension in the cut is all about restraint; the explosion that might provide relief and return the track to ordinariness is held back, never made explicit. "Get the Wheel," the album's finest track, follows, all gospel piano and emotion-laden vocals. "Somebody put a gun to my face/ Go ahead, I said," he sings at one point, then echoes "So Tight"'s verse fragment, "Get the wheel/ Let's go for a drive/ If you're troubled I'll follow you down." Left nearly bare, the focus becomes the song itself, soulful and gripping and true.
Amber Headlights fails, when it does, because it's trying to be two things at once: a personal reflection on life and death and a commercially acceptable rock record. But when the album ditches the tricks and conventions that define mainstream rock and focuses on Dulli's songs, it is very powerful indeed.