THE AFGHAN WHIGS: GENTLEMEN (1993)
1) If I Were Going; 2) Gentlemen; 3) Be Sweet; 4) Debonair; 5) When We Two Parted; 6) Fountain And Fairfax; 7) What Jail Is Like; 8) My Curse; 9) Now You Know; 10) I Keep Coming Back; 11) Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer.
Let an average band hang around long enough for the stars to form a lucky configuration, and sooner or later it will justify its existence, finally plopping out that near-masterpiece that, according to the occasional benevolent critic, it «always had in it», but was «biding its time». For The Afghan Whigs, a group grand on intentions but petty on realisations, Gentlemen was their finest hour. In all honesty, it is a record that must have come about by accident. But come about it did, and ensured them their proper place in the 1990s.
There is nothing particularly new or striking here conceptually; the difference is simply in that, somehow, the band pulled their act together and, for once, released a collection of musically interesting pieces. The general taste and smell of the band — that was well-known by 1993, and had no intention of changing. Loud, rough, screechy, confessional, obscure, not easily accessible: for an average Joe in the world of pop-art (like me, for instance), it was certainly easier to empathize with Kurt Cobain than Greg Dulli, who always seemed to leave the most important and direct things unexpressed. As in, try to guess the meaning of the album sleeve this time — is this a cheap-thrill-inviting allusion to underage sex, or just an allegory concerning the hard problem of stratifying gender roles in our modern world?
No matter. What is important is that some of the songs are good. Maybe it was a condition of the band's being picked up by a major label (Elektra Records), in the wake of industry bosses' realization of how much all grunge-related people could sell — that the band's got great sound and all, but they also need to learn to write, if you know what I mean. Whatever it was, it worked.
The band tries out some new, interesting approaches, such as a tricky «syncopated grunge» style on the title track, or a moody, echoey, almost «artsy» atmosphere on 'When We Two Parted'. The band comes up with a couple memorable riff parts, such as the hard rock droning on 'Now You Know' (reminds of Hawkwind) and the psychedelic-mystical melody of 'Be Sweet'. And the band allows for sonic diversions — such as inviting Marcy Mays of Scrawl to take over the lead vocals on 'My Curse' (a real nice change from Dulli, who wears out the eardrums fairly quick), or closing the record with yet another instrumental drone that the Velvet Underground would certainly appreciate — with guest star Happy Chichester contributing a spaced-out Mellotron part, no less.
All of this combined makes Gentlemen into a record worth revisiting, and, perhaps, even worth trying to understand and «assimilate». Not because of any insights it may give one into the world of male/female relationship — at the turn of the century, a mediocre band like the Whigs can hardly expect to publish any important breakthroughs in that sphere, no, and I am not at all interested in quoting their lyrics, or admiring the subtle ways in which they turn the sentimental ballad formula on its head. But when I listen to the band really burning it up on 'Now You Know' or 'Debonair', I feel as if am that close to «getting it» — «it» being the admirable way in which the band leader's frustration is finally converted into a sound that's got direction and purpose in addition to crunch and volume. It is tough to explain, but then I'm not alone in this — pretty sure that the boy sitting on the bed out there is having a much tougher time than me in figuring what's going on, for some reason. So, a curious, unexplainable thumbs up it is.
P.S. But is it just me, or is 'My Curse', with its main melody and acoustic guitar/piano arrangement, subconsciously influenced by Clapton's acoustic reworking of 'Layla' on Unplugged (chronologically, quite apt, since the latter came out one year earlier)? Because that is sure a bizarre way for the subconscious to behave itself.
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