The Afghan Whigs
Released March 12, 1996
"A lie, the truth.
Which one shall I use?"
Dig if you will a picture, ladies and gents: it’s 1993. You’re misters Greg Dulli, Rick McCollum and John Curley of the Afghan Whigs, riding the rapidly disintegrating wave of critical adoration and commercial disinterest of Gentlemen1, a biting, deeply personal grunge record with sixties’ soul trappings. What do you do? Immediately put out a defanged Gentlemen and sell millions until grunge burns out with Kurt in 1994? Make a completely unlistenable avant-garde record and quickly fade away, all the while screaming into the darkness that the listening public didn’t get it?
The Whigs took a third option:
Scurrying themselves away in various studios up and down Washington state in the downtime between tours , they toiled away for three years on the soundtrack to some film noir piece that was doomed from the beginning , loosing a drummer along the way2, before emerging in 1996 with Black Love a.k.a Gentlemen’s hotter, looser younger sister. It’s like that “grunge soul” sound of 1992’s Congregation and 93’s Gentlemen were forced thru a blender a gunpoint, coming out the other side ready to have the babies of Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and the Stones.
Going to Town pits the wailing guitars of Rick McCollum against guest Harold Chichester’s clavinet spewing Stevie Wonder’s Superstition like it’s on the fritz. Blame, Etc.’s funk guitars writhe around on the ceiling with some magnificent church organ that had already paired off with John Curley’s bass in opener stately opener Crime Scene, Part 1, and now the bass is pissed off like a mother fucker. It starts with suicide and gets worse from there; murder, betrayal, secrets, lies, the truth. It’s sleazy, lustful, vicious, and unapologetic; yes it’s black love, non just love of soul and all other things darker than blue, no, it’s battered, bruised, bad love. It’s the album for couples whose only sex is make up sex.
Front man Dulli’s voice is a thing to behold; alternately roaring and purring over howling guitars and mournful violin. He’s not a technically perfect singer by any stretch of the imagination; nary a song goes by without his voice cracking or a missing a note or muddling words. It’s not bad or distracting. It’s just how he rolls. Think of Greg Dulli as Tom Waits for the perpetually bruising lover-man. No pretty-boy soprano could pull off the opening lines to Honky’s Ladder (Got you where I want you mother-fucker/I got 5ive up on your dime), but Dulli’s baleful screech makes it sound legit, like a man possessed. Every syllable is delivered with utmost sincerity. His off-key growls are befitting of a man expressing something felt truly, deeply, madly.
Not a whole lot of people stuck around to feel that something with him though; grunge had collapsed in an angst-ridden pile as boy bands began to rule the airwaves once more. If the world wasn’t ready in 1993 for Gentlemen, then 99.9% of the inhabitants of planet Earth circa 1996 certainly weren’t for the prepared bleak and seething throwback to seventies blaxploitation films that was Black Love. So it lay sprawling in a heap, intimidating to all but the select few that recognized that it was a sexy, sexy beast of an album.
As bleak and depressing as often it could be, humour - or something like it – shone through occasionally3. Quoth Going To Town; “And when you say/Now we got Hell to pay/ Don’t worry baby, that’s okay/ I know the boss”. And there was warmth in there too, with the closing trifecta of Bulletproof, Summer’s Kiss and Faded running the gauntlet from hate and despair to love and joy about a dozen times each before inviting them all to bed. And Faded, lovely, beautiful Faded, makes a case for the greatest song the Whigs ever wrote- a dense, epic piece that boasts more contributors than all the other songs on the record combined. Imagine Purple Rain as interpreted by Sonic Youth performing on a stage at the end of the world, all culminating in an out of tune slide solo surrounded by loving cello, organ, violin and sleigh bells. It is the album ender to end them all.
Faded couldn’t save the album, though. It passed by unnoticed except by the devoted. The Whigs retreated to New Orleans for two years, producing 1998’s 1965, the hottest, sexiest - and maybe even greatest - soul album released in the last twenty years. They made one final triumphant dash around the globe before disbanding, with the core trio of Greg Dulli, Rick McCollum and John Curley going their separate ways. Dulli went on to pursue the Twilight Singers4. McCollum played for Moon Maan and Curley played for Fists of Love. The world went on.
Thirteen Years Later...
Now, the mighty Afghan Whigs are back, leaner and meaner than ever for a one time only world tour, with setlists leaning heavily toward Black Love. If they come to your town, go. Bring a lady –or boy – friend. Get down and dance. It might just be the greatest night of your life.
And out of the four back-to-back masterpieces5 the Whigs made, Black Love may just be their finest. One last nourishing taste of grunge’s salty angst before diving straight into soul band territory. Black Love contains the essence of everything the Afghan Whigs were; hot and cool, smooth and rough, tender and violent. As symmetry notes in his fine synopsis of Gentlemen; “This is the album you pick up when you've been stomped into the floor by the person you love most in the world”. Black Love is the album you pick up right after you realize you’re nothing without the person you love most in the world. And when you realize that make up sex is the best.
1. Crime Scene, Part 1 2. My Enemy 3. Double Day 4. Blame, Etc. 5. Step Into The Light 6. Going to Town 7. Honky's Ladder 8. Night By Candlelight 9. Bulletproof 10. Summer's Kiss 11. Faded
The Afghan Whigs
Greg Dulli (vocals/guitar) Rick McCollum (guitar) John Curley (bass)
"That secret's gonna kill you in the end baby.
That secret's gonna kill you."
why haven’t I seen Gentlemen on any
critic’s best of lists?” you may ask. Well, in the words of Tom Kern “this is the kind of record that would fuck
all those other record’s girlfriends and then never call them back again.”
2 Steve Earle. Not the famous one. Replaced with Paul Buchignan here. Buchignan turned out to be a junky - the bad kind - and was quickly let go after the Black Love tour.
3 This is much more evident in the band's EP's released around the time, which featured covers of TLC's Creep, Johnny Mercer's Moon River and If Only I Had A Heart from The Wizard of Oz.
4 As well as the soul revue band Uptown Lights and The Gutter Twins, which is essentially the Twilight Singers plus Mark Lannegan of Screaming Trees fame.
5 Congregation, Gentlemen, Black Love and 1965.
6 A song called Black Love was written for the album while Dulli was in a resteraunt on Decatur Street in New Orleans. It was a slow piano piece featuring only Dulli on piano and vocals, espousing love for a cheating partner. The song didn't make the cut for the album, but made a few concert appearances during the 1998-1999 tour. It later wound up being played over the end credits of Ted Demme's 1998 film Monument Ave. It turned up later still on the first Twlight Singers record, Twilight..., as Love, with a slightly changed lyrics and drastically changed melody and instrumentation.