Afghan Whigs: Congregation (Sub Pop/All formats)

YOU THINK the world is f—ed? Take time out for a long, hard constitutional inside your own heart, friends, and chances are things won’t look any prettier. At least, this is the message from the Afghan Whigs, who channel their fascination for the less inhibited aspects of human behaviour into a blues-grunge attack that’s become more refined since 1990’s variable Up In It, yet still heightened in potency.

Congregation sees the Cincinnatti-based Whigs broadening their frazzled guitar corral to accommodate some tasty piano and a production job that at first startles with its well-buffed sheen. This more listener-friendly environment has given the band far greater scope for spinning their subtle melodic webs, where songs appear to be running ragged and out of breath until reined in by a brilliant surge of pumped up garage riffmanship. Broadly speaking, we’re looking at a more worldly Dinosaur Jr; fractured, less than specific noisescapes but substituting vivid lyrical flights of fancy for an all-out power-putsch. Afghan Whigs drag us into a lurid, sex-scented world, where passions are unbridled and strange things are afoot in them thar bushes.

Taking Congregation on its own, spiritual, terms, singer Greg Dulli is a preacher in the Robert Mitchum Night Of The Hunter mould — except instead of ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’, this wicked man of the cloth prefers ‘Hurt’ and ‘Help’ as his tattooed knuckle oaths. Duplicity rules, as Dulli switches from begging supplicant on ‘Turn On The Water’ (“You can hold me down but don’t you let me breath/Let it wash all over me) to the eyebrow-cocked perpetrator of ‘This Is My Confession’ (“My need for guilt demands fresh fuel… you were only meat to me”), all wrapped in his desperate, amoral wail. Coupled with Rick McCollum’s tangled revisions of the Neil Young fret guide — ‘Confession”s intro sounds devillishly close to ‘Don’t Cry No Tears’ — and the Whigs’ hyped-up dirty-nailed grooves are assuming new, soul deep dimensions by the second.

In the name of conceptual propriety, they even pull off an Andrew Lloyd Webber cover, ‘The Temple’ from Jesus Christ Superstar (!), and then save the best till last with the uncredited ‘Miles Iz Ded’, a sordid rocker blessed with the genius refrain, “Don’t forget the alcohol/Ooooh baby, ooh baby”.

This is gorgeous stuff indeed. For those who care about such things, the Afghan Whigs have shown themselves here as the next ace up the Sub Pop sleeve, turning the ongoing American guitar dream on its side with a God-given twist. Religion is once again proved to-be the opium of the masses. 

© Keith CameronNew Musical Express, 18 April 1992

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