Afghan Whigs - Gentlemen
Greg Dulli - Vocals, Guitar
Rick McCollum - Guitar
John Curley - Bass
Stevie Earle - Drums
If I told you this album was a forgotten and under-rated masterpeice, would you take any notice?
Probably not, because it happens a lot on the internet. Everyone seems to have one album that they love to pieces, and yet, nobody else has heard of. This is mine. It's a concept album, revolving around men's failures in relationships. It's an intense, emotional, cutting listening experience, set off by some excellent guitar work and even better song writing by Greg Dulli, a unique and sorely under-valued talent.
It truly baffles me that Afghan Whigs never achieved mainstream success, because I've yet to play this album to anyone who doesn't like it. From what I gather though, this album, and the single Debonair, was as close as they came.
To describe the music of Afghan Whigs is no easy task. They're one of those bands that somehow sound like countless things you've heard before, and yet sound utterly unique and fresh. They owe just as much debt to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye as they do to Pearl Jam and The Pixies. They're funky, grungey, soulful, angular, and they rock. Hard. You could come up 'band-meets-band' sums for them all day. Nirvana meets Average White Band. Alice In Chains meets Nina Simone. And, direct from Launch, Smokey Robinson meets Aerosmith. But, of course, you won't sum them up that easily. It might help display their uniqueness if I told you they were the first act from outside Seattle to sign to Sub-Pop.
A key feature of the band is the guitars. The riffs here are unlike anything in my collection. The interplay between the guitarists during most of the riffs is stunning. The nearest comparison I can think of is At The Drive-In - and, by extension, The Mars Volta. It does mean that most of the riffs are unplayable to bedroom guitarists with only 2 hands, but that all serves to make the music seem that little bit more untouchable.
Greg Dulli's songs provide the perfect foil to ride over the top of this jerky, funky backing - and on the slower tracks, to ride over a more mellow, wistful backing too. His songwriting may not twist tongues or leave layer upon layer of flowery poetry to dissect, but it goes direct and true to the things that matter - your heart, your mind, and that quick-forming lump in your throat. (And on a couple of tracks, the tear ducts, too.) Some choice examples?
"Every night I spent, in that bed, with your face in the wall. If I could have only once heard you scream, to feel you alive instead of watching you abandon me...." Taken from the more mellow When We Two Parted.
"Think I'm scared of girls? Well, maybe, but I'm not afriad of you. Wanna scare me? Then you'll cling to me, no matter what I do...." The piano-driven What Jail Is Like.
"Ladies, let me tell you about myself. I've got a dick for a brain....and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you." That's the attention-grabbing and awkwardly-funny opening lines of Be Sweet.
I could go on, but it'll make the review unnecessarily long. The point is, Dulli is a skilled chronicler of both the breakdown of relationships, and the causes of them. He ranks as one of the best songwriters in the world on the evidence of this on Black Love. And I find it hard to comprehend that some people find him annoying (a view I've seen expressed quite a few times on the web).
Highlights? There's What Jail Is Like, with some great piano and a melody that suggests Bends-era Radiohead covering The Calling's Wherever You Will Go, plus some of the album's best lyrics, as quoted above. There's Be Sweet, which ruminates on male idiocy in the face of temptation, and then explodes into a killer riff. And My Curse, sung by Marcy Mays of Scrawl....
That last paragraph could easily have been 3 or 4 times that length. Though Black Love may rock harder, and be more accessible, this is the sort of record that gets inside you and never quite goes away; the sort of album you'll beginning quoting when reminiscing on things you've done wrong in the past. In short, YOU NEED THIS ALBUM.
Recommended Downloads -
What Jail Is Like
The centrepoint of the album, and lyrically, the best song here. Mainly piano-driven, and grand in scope (as I mentioned before, think The Bends), this is one of Dulli's most confessional songs (Think I'm proud of this? Well, maybe, but the shame, it never leaves....), and probably the one that captures the album's concept best, comparing, as it does, a relationship to a prison sentence.
The opening lines, quoted above, remain Dulli's most recognized and celebrated lyrics. The song begins with a simple VI-V-I progression and a subdued rhythm section, before storm clouds gather, and a dissonant, angular riff rips through the heart of the song.
The vocal here comes not from Mr. Dulli, but from Marcy Mays of Scrawl. This is possibly her best vocal performance ever - though her voice begins somewhat uncomfortably, it blossoms into a sultry, bluesy, gutsy performance as the song progresses, echoing the protagonist's search for the courage to stand up to her partner. In the context of the album, this is the moment when the debonair gentleman's behaviour turns inward on him, and his undoing begins. The final chorus is simply brilliant, as May bellows 'Oh, I do not fear you!', seemingly as desperate to convince herself as she is to convince us.
If I Were Going
This is the song that shows the Whigs' post-punk roots most obviously. It's a rolling, quivering, somewhat subdued opener, which is typical of the Whigs. While it can be tempting to skip this track in order to get to the tryptch of Gentlemen, Be Sweet, and Debonair, this is still a great opener, slowly easing the listener into the album.