THE AFGHAN WHIGS: BIG TOP HALLOWEEN (1988)
1) Here Comes Jesus; 2) In My Town; 3) Priscilla's Wedding Day; 4) Push; 5) Scream; 6) But Listen; 7) Big Top Halloween; 8) Life In A Day; 9) Sammy; 10) Doughball; 11) Back O' The Line; 12) Greek Is Extra.
The best thing that may be said about the Afghan Whigs' debut is that, for an album released in 1988, it sounds unexpectedly awful damn good. From the very beginning, the Whigs wrote, sang and played from the heart, without giving a flying fuck about joining any single musical camp. The music they play is heavy, but it is not heavy metal; punk-spirited, but is not punk; influenced by the old school of hard rock, but is not old school hard rock. It is... well, it's as if you took a listen to everything there is, then picked up a guitar, shut off your brain, and just started playing. Then one of your riffs just might happen to come out like Johnny Ramone, one might happen to be like Tony Iommi, and another one might even be Dave Davies circa 1966. Cool tools!
For 1988, when, in a blink of an eye, you could be sucked into generic hardcore or into hair metal, this was a tremendous level of freedom, and although The Afghan Whigs, in that particular respect, did nothing that The Replacements did not do before them, one could argue that it was much easier for a band like The Replacements to materialize and find an audience in the early Eighties than for a band like The Afghan Whigs to repeat the feat in the late Eighties, when the big musical revolutions were over and pigeonholing was the unavoidable word of day.
Unfortunately, just as it took The Replacements a bit of time to find their voice, so it took The Afghan Whigs an even longer time to find theirs. Big Top Halloween, released on the band's own label Ultrasuede, was so non-impressive that the album was never reissued in any format, and can only be found (with a bit of sweat) as an occasional scratchy rip of the original LP. Not to bother unless you're a completist — there is not a single song on here that I would ever want to return to, and, frankly speaking, there is no reason for anyone to hold a second opinion here.
Lots of frenzied rockers here, with one sentimental guitar-and-piano ballad in the middle ('But Listen', distinguished by being the only sentimental ballad in the world to include the line "you can kiss me on my lips, or you can kiss me on my ass, it really doesn't matter"); but the arrangements are trivial, the riffs are either stolen or not fleshed out with articulate emotional content at all, and lead vocalist Greg Dulli is expressive, but... dull. 'Priscilla's Wedding', with its swirling descent into wah-wah madness in the chorus, and the title track, with a really driving, but definitely recycled melody, are minor highlights. The rest is just one lump of passionate, sincere, aggressive, yawn-inducing noise.
Thus, as «brave» as the Whigs were to follow their own destiny already in 1988, it is pretty obvious that they were far from alone in this endeavour — the difference is that they got luckier than the rest, oh, yes, and it didn't hurt that for the next stretch of several albums, they just kept getting better and better. If not for Gentlemen, no one in the world would give the damnedest bit of a damn about Big Top Halloween; thumbs down with a guarantee.