Review Summary: You want love, but I still wanna f---
Taken out of time, Ted Demme’s 1996 rom-com Beautiful Girls
is appropriately about a high school reunion. The film was a fairly low-key moment. Demme was yet to hit the public eye properly with Johnny Depp-led Blow
, and was then mostly known as an unostentatious critical darling of vulgar romantic dirges, as well as Denis Leary’s controversial No Cure for Cancer
At surface value, Beautiful Girls
flaunted all the calling cards of a Gen-X’er. Romantic existentialism, pretty downcast women and inept downcast men, and some damn good music to boot. But for all the pubescent implications that its genre carried, the movie’s characters looked older, more beaten, more prone to doom. Despite persistent comic tinges, it was a deeply melancholic film with some poignant dialogue, and during one pub scene, it featured a bar band playing the sort of middle-aged prom that small wintry towns seem to be so keen on. The lead singer of that band was a pudgy, sweaty mess, belting out Frederick Knight’s Be for Real
, a wet forelock across his forehead, cheekily honest in his soulfulness, and as achingly depressive as his surroundings. The band were the Afghan Whigs, then riding out the success of 1993’s Gentlemen
, newly-minted as the grunge era’s sultriest and perhaps most dejected group. And the sweating man was the band’s mastermind and principal songwriter, Greg Dulli.
One could say that the sound Dulli had found with the Whigs in the 90’s never quite left him. Through his six albums with the Twilight Singers, the one-off Lanegan collaboration as the Gutter Twins, and even his tepidly-received 2005 solo effort Amber Headlights
, the operating set hasn’t wavered once. Dark, sordid, glossy R&B forged in the guitar yelp of white man’s blues. If anything, over the years he’d polished that formula to such a blinding shine, that seeing him do anything else would at this point border on self-made blasphemy.
In that sense, a Whigs reunion held little novelty for fans, aside from maybe seeing some old familiar faces straddle the stage alongside Dulli. That consistency has served him well. The Whigs’ first comeback, 2014’s Do to the Beast
, may have walked all the recognizable tropes, but it didn’t feel neither as stiff nor as stale as most reunion efforts from the era’s giants have been. Now with In Spades
, Dulli is making it clear that the Whigs’ new old union was not a singularity. There’s a new album, a new tour and that old baleful sway.
Dulli was never shy of caking songs in schmaltzy strings, and he doesn’t stand on ceremony here. Opener Birdland
is all ambience and cello with Dulli’s trademark croon churning dirt over it. It announces early on that Spades
is no tipping point. Just a bunch of old pros doing the old pro thing.
For a band that never quite rose past indie legend status, even at the cap of their halcyon days, the Whigs, and Dulli in particular, were always suckers for a grandiose punchy hook. When those big choruses hit the spot on Spades
, like on the trumpet-laced Toy Automatic
, the sublime I Got Lost
, or the kitschily maudlin closer Into the Floor
, it’s enough to make your feet leave the ground. Not all of it works however, and when it doesn’t, Dulli’s changelessness starts hindering him. The industrialized propulsion of first single Arabian Heights
feels so clunky and dated, that by the time the chorus blasts off, it jogs right past artful schlock and straight into cliché. Copernicus
kicks off with one of the catchiest and most immediate riffs Dulli has written since Bonnie Brae
, but the song never manages to get above that first ardent thrust.
It’s difficult to see Dulli veer into the left field at this point. He was perhaps one of the only 90’s iconoclasts who truly flourished on a bigger label, fanning out his sound, growing bolder and more strident. The corner he’d carved for himself in the annals of indie music has comfortably carried him through the past twenty-five years. In Spades
is a leaner, shorter affair than Do to the Beast
, which at times works against it, making the misses feel more glaring than they would have otherwise. But for an album that’s neck-deep in a pre-established sound, Spades
hits far more often than not, and much more potently that a band of this age and tenure can usually summon. Demon in Profile
adds another swinging sinister piano-guitar hymnal to the Dulli cannon, and Light as a Feather
is so deliriously seedy and danceable, it feels as though the Whigs haven’t aged at all.
It’s trite enough to call it a return to form for a band that never really lost it to begin with. However modest the scale, Dulli has endured, floating in and out of relative fashion as musical trends seesawed and cycled around him. The Whigs are now in the first stages of a promo tour for Spades
, there’s reportedly another Gutter Twins album in the works, and one shouldn’t quite expect the Twilight Singers to vanish suddenly. A comeback? Hardly. Just call it another worthy notch on the bedpost of grunge’s sleaziest R&B white boy.