Unbreakable – Junk Media
Junkmedia – 5/5
Dark and decadent, Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs were either your favorite band or something you found genuinely repellent. There was no middle ground. With songs that delved deep into the male psyche and came up screaming, the Whigs got under your skin— bad.
Frontman Greg Dulli played up his role as smooth motherfucker with such gusto on tracks like “Debonair” and the “Be Sweet” (with its infamous “I got a dick for a brain” line) that casual listeners figured they had him pegged as yet another arrogant post-punk rocker with a big mouth and an overactive libido. Lyrics such as “Do you think I’m beautiful/Or do you think I’m evil?” on the devastating “Crime Scene Part One” from 1996’s Black Love encapsulated some people’s frustration with Dulli. But his affinity for soul music and his surprising tenderness — encapsulated on the cover of The Supremes’ “Come See About Me,” darker and sadder than the original by far — reveals a different character, one significantly deeper than expected.
The songs swagger with confidence; the numbers from the band’s last record, 1998’s upbeat 1965, still feel like a hazy, absinthe-fueled party, but much of the earlier material seethes with real menace. Dulli implores his lover “Don’t you let me breathe” on Congregation’s “Turn On The Water,” while the tracks from Black Love, the band’s dark masterpiece, are both claustrophobic and cathartic; even the catchy “Going To Town” has Dulli arming his companion with a “match and gasoline,” the goals being “burn it down, turn around, and get your stroll on, baby.” The epic “Faded,” guitarist Rick McCollum’s finest moment, closes the record on an impassioned-yet-world-weary note. “Do you believe in me baby?” Dulli asks, hardly the braggart from the grungy, Sub Pop album-opener “Retarded,” “Can I believe in you?”
Unbreakable is the first — and, with the band’s plethora of great live cuts, covers and B-sides, hopefully not the last — Whigs compilation and, while the awkward tracklisting leaves something to be desired at times (1965’s “John The Baptist” sticks out like a sore thumb — and where are the singles “You My Flower,” “Honky’s Ladder” or the band’s signature set-closer, “Miles Iz Ded”?), this delivers the goods. For fans, it’s a way to reevaluate old favorites in a new context and hear two recently-recorded tracks, the gripping “I’m A Soldier” and the trip-hoppy “Magazine,” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the first Twilight Singers record. For the uninitiated, it’s a treasure trove, with would-be classic singles and songs that feel like missed opportunities on the part of the Whigs’ three labels; how Columbia missed turning the buoyant, sexy “66” into the club hit of the late ’90s is beyond me.