I ARRIVED full of doubts, prompted by the Afghan Whigs’ major-label debut, one of those song-cycle LPs. The story of a man and woman trapped in an eternal endgame (‘If I Were Going’, ‘When We Two Parted’, ‘I Keep Coming Back’), languishing and spitefully reveling in an absolute pit of druggy sadomasochism, Gentlemen is quite a drama, but it feels too much like a slacker version of those pandering television talk shows. Today at 4:00, “I stayed in too long/But she was a perfect fit/And we dragged it out so long this time/Started to make each other sick.”
Before the Whigs appeared, I suffered through Love Jones, a pseudo-lounge act somewhere in between Urge Overkill and Bill Murray’s old Saturday Night Live routines. You know the drill: Cover the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck, do Black Flag as a polka, throw in a ‘Sexy MF’ quote. Pretty irritating.
Then the Afghan Whigs came out with almost the exact same schtick: covered not one but two Supremes songs, teased the crowd about moshing, moved from ‘When Doves Cry’ to a Pavement cover in the middle of a Whigs original. And you know? It was transcendent.
The difference is not “sincerity.” Despite the incredible earnestness of most of his lyrics and vocals, Whigs leader Greg Dulli smirked constantly between tunes, defying us to find an honest ounce within him. Sure, the band rocked full-out, with an almost unquestioning joy that the more cynical production on its albums doesn’t prepare you for. But Dulli refused to get away easy in the rock’n’roll maelstrom. “Wow, we played that song really well tonight,” he said at one point, in the voice of a cheap MC, insulting the rapture of everyone present.
Yet I doubt anyone left feeling cheated. For it turns out that what Dulli has done with his poses and patter is to create a musical experience that revisits the classic yaaargh! of boy-indie-rock without coming off too belabored, too messianic, too Pearl Jam. Spacing out the angst, a handful of tunes from Gentlemen were interspersed with almost as many from the Sub Pop album, Congregation, as well as Motown covers (given a psychopathology the original versions masked), two classic Whigs oldies, and a lot of deliberately extraneous dead time.
A man who sings, “I got a dick for a brain/And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you” had better know how to put on a show. Dulli does, with a power undiminished by the fact (illusion?) that you can see right through him.
© Eric Weisbard, Spin, March 1994