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Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Afghan Whigs: In Spades


1) Birdland; 2) Arabian Heights; 3) Demon In Profile; 4) Toy Automatic; 5) Oriole; 6) Copernicus; 7) The Spell; 8) Light As A Feather; 9) I Got Lost; 10) Into The Floor.

The Afghan Whigs persist, but that awesome shining window in time seems to be closing on them. Three years after Do To The Beast, they managed not to split or fade away; instead, they mellowed out a bit — it is quite telling that the album begins with a cello-led hybrid of jazz and modern classical (ʽBirdlandʼ), instead of the usual shotgun blast that we typically expect of them. This is not to say that the entire album is soft and sentimental; the shotgun blast is simply delayed until the second track — but it is a warning that, perhaps, Greg Dulli has aged enough to allow himself to lay bare his melancholic broodings without the necessity of looking back in anger.

The good news is that the sincere, intelligent, and deeply bitter vibe of the Whigs is still inherent­ly present in every song — making this a good album for sincere, intelligent, and bitter people all over the world. There is still no better actor to impersonate a liver-impaired Prometheus than Greg Dulli, and he dutifully performs that function for 36 minutes (and it is a good thing that the record is that short: 5 more minutes and he'd not survive without a liver transplant). He is also still a master of atmosphere, creating totally convincing, overwhelming, and melodic walls of sound that can plunge you into deep depression on an almost Floydian level, such as the one he builds at the end of the album with ʽInto The Floorʼ: very simple ingredients (preferably putting a minor key piano melody at the heart of the mix, where it would nicely interact with distorted guitars and other instruments), very simple effect, but... good. A healthy sound.

Unfortunately, on the level of individual songs this is a bit of a retreat from the high benchmark of Do To The Beast. Some of the things tried out here are new, but they do not work to the man's advantage — such as the robotic industrial textures of ʽArabian Heightsʼ, a good song that, I dunno, probably could have been a lot better if it weren't so monotonous. There is a build-up here: two minutes into the song, storm trooper guitars open rapid fire and almost drown you in feed­back, and a little later on, a bit of Van Halen-esque guitar rains even more firey death on the battlefield, but then it all goes away and the song never capitalizes on its promise (the fade-out coda is a particular bummer). The other brutally heavy rocker on the album, ʽCopernicusʼ, also never advances far beyond its basic stop-and-start four-note riff, and its own wall of sound is messy and confusing (for instance, there are vocal harmonies here, but they sound almost merged with the guitars, which is cool in theory — little voices inside them hollow strings! — but is dis­orienting in practice).

It also seems as if Dulli has been on a really heavy classic soul kick lately: tiny soul and even gos­pel influences pop up all over the place, and ʽI Got Lostʼ is his own bona fide contribution to the genre — more Otis Redding than the Afghan Whigs, though far more suicidal than anything old Otis had ever written (then again, Otis is dead and Greg Dulli is alive, which is just one more of those weird mysteries of nature). This is very welcome, as is his fling with chamber pop on ʽOrioleʼ (a song that probably does not even need its heavy rhythm section), but, again, this all seems more like curious promises than great realizations. Each of the songs has an idea that never works out quite as well as it should.

Even so, embryonic ideas and wild genre mergers whose effect is ruined by unfortunate produc­tion decisions or undeveloped hooks are much better than cheaply calculated «perfection»; and an album with unmemorable songs, but a good bleeding heart, is closer to my liking than... an al­bum with unmemorable songs and no heart at all. Does the record hit the right spot? Does it make a good point? Well, take a look at that album cover — Satan putting his touch on the Pyramids, and since the Pyramids are a symbol of time (if not eternity), the point is that we are all doomed, but few people are more doomed than Greg Dulli. It's a good point that I'm willing to take, even if it is not nearly strong enough by itself to warrant a full-fledged thumbs up rating.

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