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Nashville Scene Mr. Superlove

Afghan Whigs' latest taps into the carnal urge

By Ben Taylor

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  Rock 'n' roll has a long history of underachievers. Take Bruce Springsteen, for instance--he never graduated from high school. But the underachiever status I'm referring to has more to do with being an unsung hero--musicians who capture the essence of rock 'n' roll but go virtually unrecognized during their existence. This trend arguably started during rock's infancy, with Chuck Berry. Granted, Berry scored some hits in his time, but he was never quite given his due as the king of rock 'n' roll. Even if he was the logical recipient of the title, the honor was bestowed on Elvis Presley instead.

Big Star are perhaps the most legendary bunch of underachievers ever to influence modern pop music--and they did it without the luxury of even one hit. This Memphis trio performed tuneful and heartbreakingly melodic music during the early '70s that perfectly evoked the age-old rock 'n' roll theme of unrequited love. Trumpeted by critics and beloved by a very small group of diehard fans, Big Star languished in obscurity and dissolved after releasing only two records. Chief songwriter Alex Chilton virtually disappeared until the '80s, when his name popped up in the title of a song by The Replacements.

The Replacements pretty much inherited the underachiever title directly from Big Star. Hell, even their moniker said as much, and their early records were about as sloppy as rock 'n' roll gets. Critics hailed them as the only real rock band that mattered in the '80s. But after 10 years, the band members threw their hands up and called it quits.

Of course, in the '90s, with the rise of grunge and indie rock, it became trendy to become an underachiever. So is there a true underachiever rock band of the '90s--a band embraced by a small legion of fans for its straightforward, passionate rock 'n' roll? Enter the Afghan Whigs. Formed in jail after a Hsker D show one Halloween night in the mid-'80s, Cincinnati's Afghan Whigs have labored in inexplicable anonymity for the past decade. Led by songwriter Greg Dulli, they started making a punkish noise on Seattle's SubPop label but came into their own on their 1993 Elektra debut, Gentlemen. This record showcases everything that has since become the band's trademark: painful soul-bearing songs that recall everything from Curtis Mayfield to The Who to Prince to, of course, Big Star. The Whigs also ingeniously work the classic rock clich of the concept album here by examining the deterioration of a relationship.

The Whigs followed up two years later with Black Love. Another concept album, the record showed the band moving forward sonically, even if the album's noir story line was a bit muddled. Fans predicted this was the record that would win the Whigs the wider audience they deserved. Instead, Black Love stalled after selling 50,000 copies, and the band got dropped from Elektra.

Now it's make-or-break time, and the Afghan Whigs know it. Re-signed to Columbia, they cut their latest record, 1965, in New Orleans. But rather than explore the dark side of relationships or crime, the band's chief songwriter has turned his energies to a more palatable, more universal rock 'n' roll theme: Greg Dulli wants to fuck.

"Baby, you don't know just how I lie awake and dream a while about your smile, and the way you make yo' ass shake," he sighs on "Somethin' Hot," the terrific lead-off track. If this chugging boogie single doesn't get the Whigs some serious radio play, I don't know what will. By the end of the first verse, Dulli has informed his ladyfriend that he'll "never walk the same, and you're to blame"--a great line. Thus the stage is set for a collection of songs about the joys of sex and seduction.

"Come on little rabbit, show me where you got it, cuz I know you got a habit," goes the sexually charged chorus of "66." "John the Baptist" opens with Dulli informing his guest that he's "got a little wine, some Marvin Gaye," before urging her to "come on and taste me" and letting her know that he'd do "anything for a lover, anything for a friend." In short, these songs reveal a lonely guy sitting at the bar with his beer-goggles firmly applied, mustering all the charm he can. Luckily, Dulli has a hell of a lot more charisma than most leering drunks, so his come-ons are more appealing than tiresome.

This new change of heart may alienate some of the Whigs' old fans, who've become addicted to Dulli's cathartic bloodlettings. And this time around, there's definitely more crooning than two-packs-a-day moaning. But the ingredients that make the Afghan Whigs one of the only true-blue rock 'n' roll outfits around are still there--no other band sounds like they're having as much effortless fun. The addition of the Royal Orleans Revue horns, extra percussion, and guitarist Rick McCollum's reliable slide guitar only further reinforces the Whigs' mastery of R&B and rock. And the band never backs away from its cinematic scope of sound, which by today's alterna-standards gets derided as "arena-rock."

This may be why the Afghan Whigs continue to alienate record buyers, especially young ones: Their music defies any real niche categorization. It's not hip-hop, punk, post-punk, electronica, or even left-over grunge. The Afghan Whigs are the real deal, and the kids don't know how to relate without a gimmick. Dulli knows this too, and he acknowledges that his band is getting old: In "Omerta," he grouses about having "bought some bad drugs off some snotty little rave kids."

Will the Afghan Whigs be another footnote in rock history, another of those bands that inspires a new generation of musicians 15 years from now? Apparently, Dulli and Co. know this could be their fate; it's almost sealed by the presence of Alex Chilton himself singing backup vocals on "Crazy." But maybe this time things will work out differently. Modern music is at a depressing creative low, and sales have been dropping off more and more over the past three years. Music-listening America is fed up with Mechanical Animals and Infatuation Junkies parading affectations as music. So do yourself and the Afghan Whigs a favor, and invest in something that goes straight for the gut. Pick up 1965 and make Greg Dulli smile by makin' yo' ass shake.

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