The Afghan Whigs keep burning
by Matt Ashare
Afghan Whigs The tense sizzle of a struck match is the scene-setting sound that punctuates the start of 1965, the seventh album from the Afghan Whigs, and their first since leaving Elektra for Columbia. As far as I know, the last person to employ that little device was Lou Reed, whose 1978 live disc Take No Prisoners (Arista) opened with the sound of a cigarette being lit, fair warning that rock’s poet laureate had commenced blowing smoke up an audience’s ass. Whig singer/songwriter/guitarist Greg Dulli, who also produced 1965, knows a thing or two about blowing smoke: he liked the line “A lie, the truth, which one shall I use?” so much that he used it twice on 1996’s Black Love (Elektra). And he’s enough of a music-trivia buff to know that with one allusive, close-miked flick of a match he’s brought a whole new load of baggage aboard.
Dulli and the Whigs, who, aside from a few replacement drummers, have been together for more than a decade, got their start as one of Sub Pop’s finest back when the Seattle upstart was mainly signing regional bands. Although based in Cincinnati, the Whigs sort of fit the Sub Pop profile, with Dulli’s testosterone-pumped rasp and Rick McCollum’s distorted guitars delivering the right mix of overdriven angst and aggression. They got scooped by a major in those heady days following Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough, something they acknowledged with this cynical zinger: “They were on Sub Pop to get laid, they’re on Elektra to get paid.” That, as the band hint in the title of one new song (“Neglekted”), is not quite how things worked out. And with Dulli off pursuing the acting career he’d left behind more than a decade ago for his rock-and-roll dream (he had a role in Ted Demme’s Monument Ave.), it looked for a time as if the Whigs were history.
Which is part of what makes 1965 such a triumph. Recorded earlier this year at Daniel Lanois’s studio in New Orleans (a city Dulli now calls home when he’s not living in Seattle), the disc suggests that Gentlemen, one of the very few nearly perfect rock albums of the ’90s, and Black Love, which was almost as good, were more introduction than conclusion. Gentlemen was a gut-wrenchingly blunt, sublime, seductive meditation on a desperate, dysfunctional romance. It began with the guy boasting “Ladies, let me tell you about myself/I got a dick for a brain and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you” and ended with him surveying the damaged sight of the woman he burned (“Bit into a rotten one now didn’t you?/Now I can watch you chew”). On Black Love, crimes of the heart gave way to actual felonies as Dulli, a killer now returning to the scene of his malfeasance, threatened to set the city ablaze in “Going to Town.” Both discs found the Whigs drawing warmth and inspiration from the soul music they’d covered on the 1992 EP Uptown Avondale — Al Green, the Supremes, Freda Payne, Dallas Frazier.
With 1965 (the year Dulli was born), the Whigs discover that there is a light at the end of the tunnel of black love and bad deeds. It’s not quite a happy album, but it’s full of hope and of sexual healing — Dulli even puts a little Marvin Gaye on the stereo in “John the Baptist,” a seduction abetted by some French Quarter blowing from a horn section led by Re-Birth Brass Band’s Roderick Paulin and the sweet soul background vocalizing of Susan Marshall. Even the vampire in the gorgeous rock ballad “The Slide Song” isn’t out for blood — he “only wants a little love.” There are relapses and ghosts from the past: on “Crazy,” against a cinematic backdrop of party noise and a groove that hints at second-line funk, Dulli confronts the girl from Gentlemen. She’s sold her soul to “some old boy who lives up town” — but with McCollum’s slide guitar slyly snaking its way into a patch of cellos and violins, Dulli admits with genuine affection that, as crazy as she is, he’s going crazy without her. And, on “Omertà,” with its haunting organ vibrato, ju-ju conga slaps, and jazzy horns, Dulli’s “up all night again,” “fucked and wired again” on some bad drugs he picked up from some rave kids.
As the Whigs have gotten further from their Sub Pop roots, they’ve moved closer and closer to the spirit of the Let It Bleed/Exile-era Stones. 1965 makes that connection tangible in “Citi Soleil,” a tune with a chorus that echoes “Gimme Shelter,” right down to the way McCollum’s guitar lead chases Marshall’s background vocals down the stairs of a descending chord progression. In his own way, Lou Reed tried to go there too, back in the ’70s, with songs like “I Wanna Be Black.” But Reed the poet wanted words to do all the work. Dulli the film geek knows the importance of a good soundtrack. When he lights up at the beginning of 1965, it’s not just a bad-ass poet’s affectation, it’s a cue for the band to kick in. When the smoke clears, what you hear is the voice of one of this decade’s best rock songwriters.