WOMEN OF a certain age and tastes still come over all peculiar at the mention of Greg Dulli’s name. Certain men, too. Of all the alt-rockers who journeyed from the underground hive of Sub Pop to a major label in the ’90s, the Afghan Whigs never quite broke the mainstream, but once they got their barbs under your skin, it was for life. The prime factor was the satanic, satyric charisma of their frontman. The persona of fallen altar boy Dulli – badass seducer, debonair assassin – was pure sex. The address said Cincinnati, the attitude Sin City.
In sharp contrast to the teenage angst and petulance of his grunge peers, Dulli dealt with adult, 18-rated concerns. His lifelong love of soul (expressed in covers of Al Green, Prince, the Supremes and TLC) set the Whigs apart from the Seattle pack, their sound a dream collision of Husker Du’s delicious fuzz with the whip-smart discipline of James Brown’s JB’s.
They peaked with 1993 masterpiece Gentlemen, on which Dulli played a Bond villain of the heart. He was a nemesis who informed his ensnared victim precisely what he’d do to her before doing it, “Ladies, let me tell you about myself/l got a dick for a brain/ And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you…” being a typical moment of uncomfortable honesty.
Its torrid film-noir themes of betrayal and manipulation went beyond “all’s fair in love and war”, depicting a world where nothing’s fair, and men and women are he-devils and she-devils vying for the upper hand.
After the band’s split in 2001, Dulli spent a decade dividing his time between the Gutter Brothers (with Mark Lanegan), his own Twilight Singers, and running a bar down in New Orleans. When the Whigs reunited in 2012 for a handful of gigs, he swore there’d be no new material. But no one who witnessed the exhilarating chemistry and crackle of the live set believed a word of it.
So here we are: the Afghan Whigs back on Sub Pop for their first album in 16 years, its Aleister Crowley-referencing title tipping you off that their intent is no less demonic.
The first kick-drum of ‘Parked Outside’, a stripper-blues monster with a big, burlesque, arse-wiggling beat, leaves you in no doubt: this is the Afghan Whigs in excelsis.
‘Algiers’ is desolate tumbleweed country, and ‘Can Rova’, despite its high-octane imagery (“Start the car/Check the mirror/Shut the door/Slot the gear…”) is equally subdued. These, however, are rare moments of calm. ‘Matamoros’, for example, begins with a staccato intro before igniting into a storm of guitars and Middle Eastern strings, and the apocalyptic jealousy of ‘It Kills’ ramps things up to symphonic levels.
Do To The Beast‘s tension-and-release dynamic is achieved with the Whigs’ familiar burnt-ochre guitars, drums that are hip-hop-heavy (‘I Am Fire”s backbeat wouldn’t sound out of place behind Drake) and Dulli’s age-deepened voice – a lifetime of whiskey and cigarettes lending added heft as he describes dangerous love triangles, and tells tales of playing with fire and flipping cards with Fate.
At times it’s almost too much to take in, the album’s secrets and flavours gradually revealing themselves on the third or fourth listen. Do To The Beast deserves – and rewards that attention.
© Simon Price, Q, May 2014