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The Whigs’ New Party

Something Hot: The Afghan Whigs are straight-up soul fans interested in sexual healing and whispered pleas.
One long sexy groove makes ‘1965’ a treat for Afghan Whigs fanatics

By Gina Arnold

FANDOM IS A funny thing. Like obsessive love, it’s not to be trusted, since it completely clouds one’s critical judgment. And yet there’s something beautiful about fandom, too. At its best, fandom is a form of wholly unselfish devotion. When one is caught in fandom’s deathless throes, one can only hope that the object of one’s affection is worthy, since–like justice before it–fandom is blind, unswayed by public jeers or untimely revelations.

Most people have a band or an artist they feel blind fandom for. Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, has the blanket loyalty of legions of little girls right now, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are also the recipients of complete behavioral (and artistic) amnesty.

My own blind fandom is reserved for the Afghan Whigs. For some reason, their sound speaks to me. Somehow, this four-piece group from the Midwest makes music that is the culmination of my own personal cultural references: my record collection, my era, my sense of humor.

Most people have probably never heard of the Afghan Whigs, but the band does have its high-placed adherents. Its music was often featured on the TV show My So-Called Life. Director Ted Demme used the Afghan Whigs’ songs in the movie Beautiful Girls, and singer Greg Dulli was the voice of John Lennon in the fictional Beatles movie Backbeat. Dulli also has a speaking role as a gangster in Demme’s Monument Avenue. The band was recently dropped by Elektra, only to be immediately snatched up by Sony.

The Whigs hail from Columbus, Ohio, but they are associated more with Seattle, because their second LP, Up in It (1990), was, along with Nirvana’s Bleach, one of the cornerstone records of the Sub Pop label and the sound that would soon be called grunge. They soon “went major,” releasing the transcendent LP Gentlemen (1993) and the most underrated Black Love (1996). Along with 1992’s Congregation (Sub Pop), this material makes up a body of work that limns its very own territory, a secret place where sex meets sonics and soul.

Nowadays, there is a popular belief that bands lose all currency and brilliance as soon as they lose a founding member. To some, the Stones themselves were no good after the departure of Brian Jones, and certainly the Replacements, Soul Asylum and the Smashing Pumpkins all lost something vital when they lost Bob Stinson, Grant Young and Jimmy Chamberlin, respectively.

An argument could be made that the Whigs–who have let loose drummer Steve Earle since the release of Black Love–follow this pattern, but I won’t be the one to make it. I’ll go so far as to say that 1965, the Whigs’ new album, is less unusual and urgent than the towering trilogy that preceded it, but it is still full of all the things lovers of those LPs will love.

First and foremost among those things is the stone-cold soul sound that the band has been plumbing for years. (In concert and on their EPs, they’ve been known to cover songs by the Supremes, Solomon Burke, and N.W.A–to name but a few.) The record is one long groove after another; think of a song like “Sexual Healing” or, perhaps more pertinently, “Shaft,” as done by Nirvana or Mudhoney, and you’ll get the idea. The Whigs are soul fans, straight up, which is why the record is riddled with the soaring backing vocals of Susan Marshall, who sounds very much like Merry Clayton on “Gimme Shelter” and Clare Torry on “Dark Side of the Moon.”

SECOND IN THE short list of what Afghan Whigs lovers love is frontman Dulli. Admittedly, some people find Dulli’s manner insufferable. Others–and I count myself among them–disagree.

Not to beat around the bush: Dulli sings dirty, and we love it when he does. 1965 begins with a creepy whispered “meet you in the bathroom” in the song “Something Hot,” and in case his intentions aren’t suggestive enough, he adds, “I want you so bad/after tonight, I’m never gonna walk the same.”

Another Dullism, reminiscent of Gentleman’s famous admission–“I got a dick for a brain”–comes on “Neglekted,” when he sings, “You can fuck my body baby/but don’t fuck my mind.” Then there’s “Sweet Son of a Bitch,” which is a cut-up sample of something pretty pornographic, which immediately slips into “66,” featuring a lovely acoustic strumming–like a guy humming Madonna’s pretty song “Secret” as backed by Lil Kim.

Finally, there’s “Omerta”–the word means submission or revenge–a song which pretty much packs all his favorite subjects (not to mention instruments, including piano and horns) into one vast, speed-driven panorama about pain and ecstasy. “Omerta” also contains two new gems from the Afghan Whigs’ patented school of lyrical realism, beginning with “bought some bad drugs off these snotty little rave kids I met” and “must be a Stone Temple sob story.”

See, to Dulli, love, sex and violence are interchangeable: necessary, fascinating, evil and funny. The rest of the grunge types were essentially self-absorbed and sexless, but not Dulli: he could sing about sex and sexism forever, and I for one would listen to it all. He is the master of the slow burn, the big buildup and the orgasmic finish.

The new album was recorded in New Orleans, where it picked up some of its sleazy imagery, some French lyrics, some Big Easy horns and Alex Chilton on backup vocals on the song “Crazy.” Otherwise, a cynic might say, it repeats certain themes and even riffs from previous albums. But if you can’t get enough, then what could be more welcome?

I mean, I may go blind–but I don’t go deaf. To me, every time with the Whigs feels like the first time, but if it really is your first time, then you’ve got a treat in store.

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