Sniff City // Village Voice
Village Voice, March 24, 1992
Inescapable facts: Pearl Jam are a fraud, Bill Clinton blows goats, Hole can’t play, Bill Clinton still has a lawn jockey, Helmet need a singer, Bill Clinton eats human flesh. Notice a pattern? In rock, as in politics, artifice counts more than substance with the “intelligentsia.” Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs are a weird case in point: about to blow up big-time with the dead-hip/better-off-dead crowd, their trad-rock belch (think Aerosmith’s Rocks without the bombast) perfectly disguises lyrical depth and wit none of their peers have matched. Vocalist/guitarist Greg Dulli has mumbled shit in interviews about being “into” nasty literary subjects like…uh, I dunno, s/m, alcoholism, etc. Sure, big deal. Black Francis, David Lynch, Steve Albini, or Bill Clinton could say the same thing. Difference is, Dulli isn’t adopting a character’s voice, nor does he lead us to any answers about fucked-up behavior.
Dulli’s depictions of the bitch-slapping/booze-swilling worldview are scarier because his delivery is so matter-of-fact. On the Whigs’ last two LP’s, Up in It and the newly released Congregation (Sub Pop), his best lines come off like retorts (“Who you calling retarded now?”), punch lines (“Why don’t you ask your wife”), resignation (“You’ve got me figured out now/we’re both disappointed”), and outright lies (“We can still be friends”). The threat “I’m gonna turn on you before you turn on me” from “Conjure Me” doesn’t refer to arousal; Dulli’s assumption of impending betrayal is loser paranoia, but it’s also a grim verdict of mutual guilt. Waving goodbye (or walking out) becomes inevitable.
None of the above should make you think the Whigs’ music is as pedestrian as any of their label mates. Guitarist Rick McCollum is the most effective/least obtrusive pedal hooper since J. Mascis broke his neck snowboarding, the spaciest onstage persona since Don Fleming became the head of Scientology. Afghan Whigs have been dogged with comparisons to the Replacements and Soul Asylum, which might make sense if the former had _any_ other song better than “Kids Don’t Follow,” the latter “Closer to the Stars.” Afghan Whigs have scaled those heights nine or 10 times on each of their last two albums, and they’ve gotten there with more rhythmic variation (no current rock drummer _overplays_ like Steven Earle). Their flair for the anthemic is undercut by a distaste for the melodramatic. If that gets them labeled nothing more than a slightly cerebral G N’ R, it’s cause the intelligentsia don’t know what else to call hard rockers w/o mush for brains.
Performing to a packed house of rock biz sniffers at San Francisco’s Kennel Club last month, the Afghan Whigs showed their limitations. Ambitious songs like “Conjure Me” and Up in It’s “Hated” barely hung together. Dulli’s rhythm guitar was completely inaudible, McCollum’s playing in a different universe. Whatever emotional range these guys have on record gets chopped in half onstage; awash in volume and velocity, the Whigs aren’t nearly as brilliant as they are merely competent. The evening’s finest moment came with a staggering reading of Congregation’s hidden track “Miles iz Ded.” Dulli’s thin, desperate plea of “don’t foget the alcohol…oh baby” ad infinitum, was incoherent, pained and pathetic. McCollum’s lead guitar circled Dulli’s large pile of self-pity — better than U2’s “Ulraviolet (Light My Way),” worse than Pete Laughner’s “Ain’t It Fun,” just as good as Bill Clinton’s leave-my-wife-out-of-this speech.
By Gerard Cosloy