Release Date: Apr 15, 2014
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
In the 13 years since The Afghan Whigs disbanded - their hole in alternative rock largely filled by The Twilight Singers - Greg Dulli has established himself as the finest songwriter to survive the Great Grunge Feeding Frenzy. Where other stars became bloated, boring, indulgent (and, of course, dead) Dulli kept honing his craft. The cruel cliché about grunge was that it represented a desperate adolescent plea for attention in an age of divorce/therapy/medication for all; the distorted squawl of a Prozac Nation that had no rights left to fight for, except the right to complain.
It’s often a dicey proposition when a revered band regroups to make a new album after having been dormant: there’s just no telling whether the musicians still share the creative spark that made them revered in the first place. There was an undercurrent of trepidation, then, accompanying the exciting news that the Afghan Whigs were readying their first new LP since 1998. It took a few more years for the band to wind down in 2001, before reuniting in 2012 for a tour that spilled into the following year, when the group played a show at South by Southwest that included a surprise appearance from Usher.
Rock-and-roll timelines have turned in on themselves so completely since Little Richard kicked things off in the mid ’50s that it’s sometimes hard to remember what came first: Keith or the riff. That The Afghan Whigs are releasing a new album almost three decades since first forming seems unfathomable, yet here they are, and back on Sub Pop to boot. Longtime fans will relish the return as Greg Dulli’s voice—full of longing, sex and anger—has never sounded better; new listeners will marvel at the drama that was so prevalent in bands from the ’90s, and that can be so lacking now.
In the 1990s, The Afghan Whigs occupied an unusual — even unique — niche. They were as much a grunge band as an R&B group, sounding as comfortable on a playlist or a festival lineup next to Funkadelic as they were alongside Nirvana or Dinosaur Jr. The Cincinnati, Ohio-based group famously — and fantastically — covered TLC’s New Jack Swing hit “Creep,” and closed their career with 1965, an album that, despite its title and 1998 release date, sounded as if it were beamed in from 1978 — the year that saw the release of both Prince’s debut and The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls.
Hey, mimsy buttoned-up slick-haired Sam Smith-alikes – call that soul? This is soul. Grunge’s original noir screamer Greg Dulli is back from his 13-year dabbling with The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins, back with (most of) Cincinnati’s original Afghan Whigs, back on Sub Pop and back on the trail of plaid-clad serial killers. ‘Matamoros’ – string-smattered, slinky, slaughterous – is about a Mexican town plagued by Satanic murders (”I cut you down, I stitch you up”), while ‘It Kills’ and ‘These Sticks’ are revenge fantasies that pepper Dulli’s seditious croaks with Al Green whoops.
In hindsight, the Afghan Whigs were the quintessential ‘90s band. They established their guitar rock bona fides early on; a foot stuck in the muddy angst that kicked off the decade even made them a comfy fit on Sub Pop, at least for a while. Their true claim to the era, though, lies in the gradual evolution they underwent on the stunning 1993-1998 run of Gentlemen, Black Love, and 1965.
With their triumphant reunion shows much more potent than could reasonably have been expected, and following two satisfying cover tracks, a brand new The Afghan Whigs album no longer seemed implausible. Sixteen years after 1965 left matters somewhat unresolved, here it is. Unfortunately, the absence of guitarist Rick McCollum (whose incandescent strafes, riffs and effects contributed more to the Whigs sound than many might appreciate) risks making Do To The Beast more of an exercise in rebranding than in revival.
Afghan Whigs' first album in 16 years carries on where the Ohio grunge-era rockers left off in 1998. Even minus founding guitarist Rick McCollum, the template remains that of a hard, heavy rock band playing soulful music with anguished vocals. If anything, there are even more nods to black music. Orchestral strings and Motown drum beats abound, while frontman Greg Dulli is not averse to an occasional falsetto or Prince-like wailing.
The most satisfying moments on the Afghan Whigs’ first album in 16 years aren’t the soaring choruses, or the runaway guitar solos, or the thinly veiled R&B references—not even Van Hunt doing a truly killer Bobby Womack impersonation on “It Kills”. Rather, Do to the Beast is best right before all hell breaks loose. On “Royal Cream”, Greg Dulli and the band draw out the verse for an extra beat or two, ratcheting up the suspense before surging into the swaggering chorus.
Review Summary: Call it a comeback.Do to the Beast is one of those records that is difficult to pin down. It is constantly evolving; ever-shifting within the confines of its rigid album casing. Perhaps it’s because The Afghan Whigs have incorporated so many different styles – some dating back to their grunge days and others acquired during their sixteen year hiatus - that they have been able to make such a resplendent and unquestionably successful return to relevancy.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. The commonly-held view is that grunge didn't manage to make it past the mid-nineties, and a not-insignificant recent anniversary has done nothing to diminish that belief in the popular imagination. In reality, though, The Afghan Whigs were retaining some of the key signifiers of the Seattle-born sound as late as their 1998 record 1965, which was, until now, their most recent full-length release.
It will never be over. Greg Dulli’s emotional return…Ted Demme’s 1996 movie Beautiful Girls contains a scene in which two characters decide to go to a Massachusetts bar on the strength of the band that’s playing there. “What kind of band is it?” asks one. “A soul band,” says the other.The band, of course, is the Afghan Whigs, a point probably much gratifying to the band’s leader, Greg Dulli – an identification flattering simultaneously to the masculinity, cinematic aspirations and the musical passions of his band.
Expectations for reunion albums can be a killer, but the Afghan Whigs manage to slay that dragon nicely on Do to the Beast. Opener "Parked Outside" plays lean and mean with a spacious and bluesy guitar crunch, Dulli's smoky and throat-straining cries running hard on the first of many heartbreakers with a desperate "You're gonna make me break down and cry. " "It Kills," an early stunner built around elegiac piano fingering and a doom-tinged mellotron and guitar arrangement, comes with Dulli's crushing "It kills to watch you love another" before guest Van Hunt steals the show with a soul-stirring falsetto display.
Like R.E.M. without Berry, Queens of the Stone Age without Oliveri, Pixies without Deal, or The Spice Girls without Ginger, Do to the Beast is good but not exquisite and just not quite right. Because it lacks the presence of original guitarist Rick McCollum, the longer you spend with Do to the Beast the more it resembles how the next Twilight Singers album would have sounded, only repackaged under the more lucrative Afghan Whigs brand.
In the Nineties, the Afghan Whigs made grunge that had soul quake and blues menace, with frontman Greg Dulli playing the alt-rock dude reborn as unregenerate lounge cobra. The stylishly sleazy intensity is still there on their first record since 1998's excellent 1965, only with a wider palette – "Parked Outside" is gnarled sludge blues, "Algiers" coats noir desert rock in Crazy Horse noise muck, and "It Kills" is a full-on doom-gospel epic. Dulli's grizzled predatory slyness ties it together.
What appeared to be Afghan Whigs’ swan song – 1965 – was released in 1998 and close to perfection. Gentler than Gentlemen, their 1993 breakthrough, the last studio album from the Cincinnati quartet was dark, tender, furious, funny and sad. I listened to my copy until it broke. It’s difficult to re-catch such a wave.
Of the bands that came from the "heavy alternative" scene typified by the Sub Pop roster in the late '80s to early '90s, the Afghan Whigs were one of the very best, and also one of the least likely to connect with a mass audience -- their music was strong and powerful, the songs were outstanding soul-inflected hard rock, and Greg Dulli's nicotine-bathed voice was the perfect fit for their musical approach, but they were willing to dig deeper into the dark spaces of self-loathing and needy emotional manipulation than anyone else in rock, and as a consequence their finest and most compelling album, 1993's Gentlemen, was often hard to hear for all its grim fascination with the ugly side of the male psyche. It seemed the band couldn't go any deeper, and they didn't on their final two albums, 1996's Black Love and 1998's 1965, but after a heroically received reunion tour in 2012, the Afghan Whigs returned to the recording studio and have offered up a work nearly as dark and unsettling as Gentlemen, 2014's Do to the Beast. It sounds a good bit different than their previous work: vocalist and songwriter Dulli and bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Curley are the only original members of the band on board, and the sheets of electric guitar generated by Rick McCollum are particularly missed, replaced with a larger ensemble (including lots of keys, occasional strings, and busy percussion) that boasts a broader dramatic scope than the classic Whigs sound but fails to connect with the same ferocity.
An odd thing happened at SXSW last year. Usher – that's the multimillion-selling soul'n'B star Usher – shared a stage with the Afghan Whigs, a criminally under-appreciated 90s rock outfit who had reunited a year previously. They did Whigs songs and Usher songs, without the engineered camaraderie these collaborations usually entail. The Whigs might have initially signed to Sub Pop during the grunge era (later going major), but they were always a sophisticated proposition; no holes in their jeans, handy with the cover versions.
“If they’ve seen it all, show ‘em something new,” shouts Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli during the opening verse of Do to the Beast. A 16-year gap between studio albums for any band would likely mean changes. For a band like The Afghan Whigs, though, who were always, as Dulli describes them, “wildly out of step” with their scene—serving up a mash of decadent soul and hard rock in their heyday while the masses ravenously gorged on grunge—a different type of offering feels inevitable.
Let’s get the obligatory comments out of the way: 16 years is a long time between albums. A child born the day the last studio album from The Afghan Whigs, 1965, was released would reach driving age here in the US this coming October. Front man and undisputed Whigs leader, Greg Dulli, has alluded in interviews to “the legacy” he and his bandmates “are engaging”; despite the length of the layoff and the Whigs’ canonical cult status, though, the break doesn’t seem that long due to Dulli’s continued activity with his other projects, The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins, his collaboration with Mark Lanegan.
Your attention please: I just bought tickets to The Afghan Whigs – in 2014. These tickets, however, are considerably more expensive than door prices would have been at Sudsy’s – the bar and laundrette that hosted local legendary line-ups, and most probably the place where many of us first saw the whigs – their affectionate abbreviation at that time. Lyrically, Greg Dulli was experimenting with his Freudian drives 20 years ago; territory that few could fully articulate, let alone conjure nightly on stage in Corryville, Cincinnati.
Afghan Whigs — Do To the Beast (Sub Pop)“The Lottery,” coming around the middle of the first Afghan Whigs album in 16 years, recaps all the highlights of the band’s sound, the dry, coiled drum rhythms, the massive guitar attack, the bleary swagger of Dulli’s voice, the inexorable, way-over-the-top dramatic crescendo.Since 1965, the focus has shifted perceptibly from sex to death, two key players have exited, and the world has changed. It’s not that Afghan Whigs haven’t been affected. There’s a lush big time hip-hop sheen over many of these tracks, rather than the classic funk and R&B that crept into earlier work (Dulli seems, even, to have been autotuned briefly in first single “Algiers”).
It's been 16 years since the last Afghan Whigs album, and the band doesn’t gently ease back: “Do to the Beast” kicks off with the heavy grunt of “Parked Outside” as singer Greg Dulli snarls like a trapped animal. It’s a powerful and misleading reintroduction, since the Whigs seem only capable of reclaiming their turf in fits and starts. “Matamoros” is snaky and relentless, the low-key “These Sticks” throbs tensely, and the cinematic “Royal Cream” constantly catches its breath before leaping back to bite again.
opinion byMATTHEW M. F. MILLER With the exception of Twinkies and maybe Hulk Hogan, step away from anything for 18 years and you’d expect it to deteriorate during that time. Especially in music, where the landscape changes daily and fan-ship is particularly fickle, which makes comebacks generally disappointing.
During The Afghan Whigs’ initial run of great albums—its second, 1990’s Up In It, through its sixth, 1998’s 1965—the band moved through styles like a con man through a room full of marks. Two elements, though, were constant: Greg Dulli’s sensually raspy voice, and the inhumanly beautiful guitar interplay between Dulli and founding guitarist Rick McCollum. But as quietly announced earlier this year, McCollum has left the band.