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Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Afghan Whigs: 1965

THE AFGHAN WHIGS: 1965 (1998)

1) Somethin' Hot; 2) Crazy; 3) Uptown Again; 4) Sweet Son Of A Bitch; 5) 66; 6) Citi Soleil; 7) John The Baptist; 8) The Slide Song; 9) Neglekted; 10) Omertà; 11) The Vampire Lanois.

At the time it was released, 1965 was not at all intended to serve as the band's swan song. On the contrary, it could have been thought of as a new beginning: after a three year break, the Whigs were picked up by one of the biggest players in the business — Columbia Records — and, as if to honor that event, Dulli and Co. made drastic changes to their sound, opening a new page in their musical history. As it turned out, the new book was to begin and end on the same page. But now this gives us a great excuse to finish it all off by saying — yes, at the end of their collective mu­sical journey the Whigs finally did turn in that one-of-a-kind record that justifies their entire ca­reer and sets up a special place for them in the alt-rock scene of the 1990s.

In my personal rating, 1965 is locked in a never-ending battle with Gentlemen as the Whigs' fi­nest hour. It represents a change, almost a transformation into a seriously different kind of band, which makes Gentlemen the more obvious choice to learn the essence of their usual sound. And in terms of memorable songs, both arguably contain comparable amounts of effort. But only on 1965 does Greg Dulli suddenly seem to wake up and actually start thinking about the sonic side of the business. And all of a sudden, there's an intrigue that never used to be there before.

As 'Somethin' Hot' bursts through your speakers, the first thing to notice is the syncopated «angu­lar» riff that brings to mind the best tracks on Gentlemen — an impressive, if not jaw-dropping, chord sequence instead of fully generic grunge/funk backgrounds on Black Love. By the time it gets to the chorus, it becomes something else: with a mix of grunge guitar, R'n'B drumming, soul-infused back­ground female vocals, and Dulli's "I wanna getcha high!" owing as much to white trash lust-as-love-as-lust sentiments as it does to Sly & The Family Stone, the Whigs have finally earned their reputation as genre-mergers.

Not only that, but Dulli's own personality also undergoes repairs. Instead of — always unsuc­cessfully — exorcising his de­mons, he has accepted them as an inevitable, but not particularly de­trimental evil. Jason Ankeny of the All-Music Guide has remarked that Dulli's "I got the devil in me, girl" in 'John The Baptist' is delivered almost as a pickup line, and I couldn't agree more. The song is wild and lustful, with one of three legs each in modern alt-rock, R'n'B, and 1970s glam, and not a single sign of self-hatred or desperate frustration in sight.

'John The Baptist' is one of the culminating moments, but the «epic» component is specially sa­ved by the band for the closing two tracks (really just one large song with a lengthy instrumental coda). 'Omertà' takes the appropriate time to unfurl, with funky bass, snowy organ, and unusually silk and sexy vocals from Dulli (did I mention yet that 1965 is the album to prove his worthiness as a singer?) leading into the storm of the chorus. But, although memories of "I got the devil" are still strong and Dulli's overdriven pleas of "surrender to me" are delivered like Voodoo spells, the­re is nothing particularly demonic or threatening to this storm. It's just that there are bright and shiny declarations of love, and then there are the dark and disturbed ones. 'Omertà' falls into the latter, much smaller and rarer, category.

Other than that, 1965 is just fun to listen to — for its out-of-nowhere Miles Davis-style trumpet solos, its moody background vocal arrangements, its stronger-than-usual emphasis on lyrical lead guitar lines. In a way, compared to all the rage that preceded it, it might be perceived as «shal­low» — after all, what good is an artistic statement if the artist does not bleed? That's the low art of comedy, not the high one of tragedy. But, on the other hand, I'll always take competently rea­lized comedy over inadequately puffed up tragedy. And for a guy who still has not blown his brains out or overdosed on a toilet seat, and, let us hope, has no plans of doing that in the nearest future, Dulli seems much more at home with the sentiments shown on 1965 than on any of those earlier records.

Then again, perhaps it is true that 1965, with its sonic evolution, is more of a Greg Dulli project than a bona fide Afghan Whigs record — and why it was the band's swan song, after all, upon which Dulli switched to a solo career (as well as a side one with The Twilight Singers, where he has far more commanding power than he had in his original band). But, to me, that would only mean that the classic Afghan Whigs period was just a first, far from the most important, step in Dulli's journey to rock adulthood. In any case, it hardly matters who gets the thumbs up — the band as a whole or the mastermind behind it.

Check "1965" (CD) on Amazon
Check "1965" (MP3) on Amazon

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