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The Cincinnati Post – Whigs release retrospective

The Cincinnati Post – Whigs release retrospective CD on Rhino
By Rick Byrd

The Afghan Whigs, never high-profile mainstream stars even in their hometown, are getting the prestigious Rhino Records treatment.

California-based Rhino, the leading record company for reissues, compilations and heritage packages, today releases the 18-cut “Unbreakable (A Retrospective 1990- 2006) making the Whigs the first Cincinnati band to get the Rhino salute.

“You can’t call it a greatest hits because we never had any,” acknowledges Greg Dulli, a Ross, Ohio, native, Whigs lead singer and songwriter. “But, in my opinion we are a well-deserved mark (for Rhino).”

No hits, but they have, indeed, left a mark. By the time of their first major label release, 1993’s “Gentlemen,” the Afghan Whigs already were darlings of the alternative rock scene. They had built a cult-like following with MTV exposure, favorable Rolling Stone reviews and hundreds of gigs in the U.S. and Europe since they formed in 1986.

The band, which split up in 2001, continues to get, perhaps, more appreciation now than in its early ’90s heyday for its brooding post-punk sound, with Dulli’s R&B swagger and his amazing soul-tinged vocals that always sound like he’s letting you in on some dark, tortured secret.

In many cases he was. The Whigs were known for wearing their emotions on their sleeves and it was often a sulking, ethereal world the listener entered.

It is rare, but not uncommon, for Rhino to pay tribute to a group whose body of work is still fairly young in the rock scheme of things. (They have already put out a Sugar Ray compilation). It seems the Whigs had a passionate advocate on the Rhino staff, Cory Frye, who says he became a “militant proponent” of the band after first seeing them on MTV in 1993 – and had been pushing his bosses for the release since 2002.

“To me, you can’t associate their sound with a particular era. It almost seems to be nostalgia proof,” said Frye, a Rhino editor. “Their sound has a forcefulness and urgency that transcends any period it was recorded in.”

By 1992, the Whigs had released two albums on landmark Seattle indie label Sub Pop, the home to the so-called grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The Whigs were the first non-Seattle band on the label and perhaps unfairly got lumped in the grunge genre. But theirs was a far more esoteric, cinematic sound and had more angst than even the grunge rockers could come up with. Through it all was a hint of raucous R&B roots that set them apart from the more punk and metal oriented alt-rock of the day.

Dulli said he “took perverse pleasure in confounding expectations” they were tagged with because of Sub Pop.

“To be honest, if you had a Sub Pop logo slapped on your product and you rolled into a town at that particular time, you were going to pack a room based on legend,” Dulli said. “Once you had them in the room, what you did with them was up to you. I always said, ‘Just crack the door for me I’ll kick it down.’ ”

After outgrowing Sub Pop, it was on to major label deals with Electra and Columbia. That included “Gentlemen” with its masterpiece single “Debonair,” the closest the band came to a hit.

The Whigs’ darkest, most brooding work, 1996’s “Black Love,” is considered an alt-rock classic in some circles. The Whigs’ music always had a wall-of-sound, cinematic quality and Frye calls “Black Love” “like a soundtrack to a movie that was never made.

“It was such a confrontational and brutal record, I immediately fell in love with it,” Frye said. “I remember Rolling Stone panned it and I couldn’t understand if the guy heard the same record.”

That was often the case with the Whigs, an occasionally misunderstood band, with Dulli sometimes known for his outrageous behavior at club gigs. Through much of the ’90s they flirted with commercial breakthrough success, but never quite got there.

Dulli and bandmate John Curley co-produced the Rhino retrospective, coming up with a cut list that breaks some unwritten rules for such projects. It’s not in chronological order. For example, it opens with 1990’s “Retarded” and the second track jumps to 1998’s “Crazy.”

“The goal was to make it sort of like a set list of the show we always wanted to do,” Dulli said.

That sequencing works like a charm, having the effect of reminding the listener how timeless the Whigs’ unique brand of modern rock can be.

Like any good bar band set, the CD also throws in a couple of new tunes. The band had a brief studio reunion last year to record the two new songs in Memphis with Dulli and bassist Curley hooking up with guitarist Rick McCollum and drummer Mike Horrigan (who replaced original drummer Steve Earle in 1995).

Band members insist there are no plans for any sort of Whigs reunion tour or project.

“I will forever be a proud man that I stood on stage with those boys for 14 or 15 years,” Dulli says about the finality of the band. But he can’t resist adding, “If some rich guy wants to give us a million dollars to play in his backyard, we’ll do it.”

Whigs members remain musically active. Dulli, who now splits time between residences in Los Angeles and New Orleans, is currently working on a new CD with Mark Lanigan as the Gutter Twins. Dulli has released three projects under the Twilight Singers banner; Curley, a Hyde Park resident, runs Ultrasuede studios in Northside, playing with the Staggering Statistics, which this month released a new CD, “I’m Thinking About Changing”; and McCollum lives in Minneapolis, recording and performing with his band Moon Maan.

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