BY Brian Baker
Like anyone who was in Cincinnati in the late ’80s and aware of local music, I have profound and personal recollections of The Afghan Whigs. The first came just before the band’s 1988 self-released debut, Big Top Halloween, when Bucking Strap frontwoman Anna Scala dropped in to Wizard Records one afternoon to relate studio tales from her recent session providing background vocals for “Scream” and “Sammy.”
“They’re like the Replacements overdosed on Coltrane,” she noted with fervor. “They’re going to be massive.”
Fast forward nearly a decade, after the Whigs had long since gone on to belong to the world at large. I ran into bassist John Curley and his wife at the Hyde Park Art Show and, after a couple of subsequent conversations, Curley — knowing my graphic design background — invited me to submit design suggestions for the gatefold vinyl issue of the Whigs’ upcoming album, Black Love.
One evening, after tweaking the concept (which was never used) in the Curleys’ kitchen, we retreated to the living room where John cued up the unmixed version of Black Love. As “Crime Scene Part One” poured out of the massive speakers, I was aware that the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck were standing straight up, a state in which they would remain for nearly an hour. When the tape drew to a close, I looked at John, wide-eyed, slackjawed and wordless. He smiled his stoic bass-player smile and said quietly, “Yeah, I know.”
Unfortunately, Black Love didn’t strike the rest of the world the way it should have and the Whigs made only one more album, 1998’s 1965, before the band bowed out on their own terms in 2001 with their dignity and their friendships intact. In the six years since the dissolution of the Whigs, Greg Dulli has found further success with the Twilight Singers; Curley has become an in-demand producer/engineer locally and plays with Staggering Statistics; Rick McCollum has enchanted the Minneapolis scene with Moon Maan; and original drummer Steve Earle fronts Cincy’s Earle Grey on vocals and guitar.
All of the band’s members routinely field questions about the possibility of a Whigs reunion, questions that will likely be renewed with the June 5 release of Unbreakable, an 18-track compilation featuring two “new” songs.
The term “retrospective” is required in cases like this, as the Whigs had no discernible chart hits to collect and exploit. The loyal fan base that followed the Whigs faithfully over their 15 year run is more than ready to sign up for Unbreakable, particularly for the new tracks that it adds to the band’s canon.
“Magazine” was one of a handful of songs the band had demoed when they split in 2000; some extra tracking buffed it up for the collection. The other new track on Unbreakable, “I’m a Soldier,” was made specifically for the album. The band members — including latter-day drummer Michael Horrigan — convened in Memphis last year and threw around bits and pieces until the song took shape.
“Greg had some ideas, a general kind of song that he felt would be good to do, but it was just kind of a general description, not any sort of musical thing,” says Curley. “We talked about it in subjective terms the way most people talk about songs, and once we got down there we started trying out riffs, like we usually would.”
“I’m a Soldier” shows just how quickly The Whigs’ comfort level returned, as the track is a showcase of the Whigs’ best qualities: slinky, sinewy Soul interwoven with noisily melodic Indie Rock, a chaotic and visceral combination that threatens to spin out but never quite loses its center.
Once Dulli and Rhino Records agreed on the need for a Whigs retrospective, Unbreakable took shape with Curley and Dulli trading wish lists of the Whigs’ tracks that would make up their dream collection.
“Greg and I sent each other a couple of e-mails and we both picked out a list, and most of our stuff matched up,” says Curley. “These songs were popular among our fans and songs that we were proud of songwriting-wise, where we thought we had stretched our abilities. And we wanted to put a cohesive record together, something that would stand on its own as a record, so that was a consideration.”
That depth is plainly evident in Unbreakable’s historical significance — opener “Retarded” from Up In It, three from Congregation, their dark, minor-key cover of the Supremes’ “Come See About Me” from the Uptown Avondale EP, all from their Sub Pop days — blended with appropriately toned selections from their Elektra and Columbia catalogs.
The best news to come from the release of Unbreakable might be Curley’s admission that the success of “I’m a Soldier” has hinted at the possibility of a full-fledged Afghan Whigs reunion. While everyone’s hectic schedules would make it difficult, all four are receptive to the idea of working together again, as no one expressed an opinion against it.
“I think with any Whigs event, there’s always a certain amount of that,” says Curley with a laugh. “We don’t have any plans to (reunite) right now, but who knows? The door’s open for anything.”
Considering the disparity between the Afghan Whigs’ critical and commercial success, you could make the case that Unbreakable represents the legitimacy of their legacy. When Curley considers the concept of Unbreakable as vindication, his answer is humble yet confident.
“I feel like we were a great band, and I feel like the people who found out about us and got to see us think we were a great band,” says Curley. “I don’t feel like we need to be vindicated. I’m glad that we stand the test of time for people.”