J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Playlists, podcasts and music from WQFS Greensboro's J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Long Player #3:
The Afghan Whigs - Black Love

The Afghan Whigs are not only one of my favorite bands, but they encompass one of my favorite rock band trajectories: One solid album to get their footing, three or so increasingly stellar albums afterward, a really good swan song, and then at least ten years later, a reunion with record(s) that match the originals in quality. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, but in a lot of ways, I feel like 5 is the optimal number of albums that one group of musicians ought to record together. (This does not include EPs.) Call it the Pavement Rule - one great debut (Slanted..), three increasingly great follow ups (Crooked Rain.. through Brighten the Corners) and the good swan song (Terror Twilight).

I go back and forth on which Afghan Whigs album is actually my favorite; I tend to cycle between the main focus of today's piece and 1993's Gentlemen. Both are superb and pretty much perfect in their own ways. But there's a little phrase that's been tucked away on most every project Greg Dulli has laid his hands on these past three decades: "Shot on location at" That's what all these albums say in lieu of "Recorded at.." And Black Love is without question the most cinematic of the Afghan Whigs' original run.

Both albums also share one of my favorite lyrical conceits - a returning theme. Dulli is great at opening with a line ("a lie...the truth...which one should I use?" in "Crime Scene Part One") and then returning to it in a slightly different context later (on "Blame, Etc.").

The album is paced and structured pretty perfectly. The slow build of "Crime Scene Part One" leads into the soaring blitz of "My Enemy," to the propelled slinkiness of "Double Day" and the raging "Blame, Etc." All of this makes the fifth track, "Step Into the Light," one of the best examples of tension relief on most any album I've ever heard. It's perfectly placed an executed.

"Going to Town" has some of my favorite Dulli sin/hell-based lyrics ("When you say, 'Boy, we got hell to pay' / Don't worry, baby, that's okay / I know the boss") and "Honky's Ladder" has a perverse sing-along chorus that best exmplifies something I noticed for the first time on this recent listen. The guitars at the center of the Afghan Whigs music, played by Dulli and Rick McCollum, always seemed just the slightest bit off-key. Like the pegs needed just a slight turn more. But I realized now that they give the music its gleefully off-kilter sound. The sound of chaos straining, on the verge of boiling over. And more than that, they echo the voice of Greg Dulli. Dulli's voice is a powerful one. He can take his voice up into falsetto brilliantly, but can hover somewhere between a growl and a yowl, sounding like someone with just a bit of rasp trying to re-create some of the best soul crooners of the 60s and 70s.

The album ends with another thing that I think is a marker of a great record: an ending triptych. "Bulletproof" into "Summer's Kiss" into "Faded" is as engaging a closing set of songs that you could ask for. Especially as "Faded" fades out into the same el-train/subway noises that the record opens with, bringing it all full circle. There's not a wasted noted or effect on this album and it's truly the Afghan Whigs at the peak of their prowess as a band.

The copy of Black Love that I own is the 20th anniversary reissue from last year and it includes some extras - none of which are that interesting, honestly, aside from a cover of New Order's "Regret" which is pretty transcendent and could've fit in somewhere on the original album I think. Dulli's work as an interpreter of other people's work - making it into his own - is without parallel in indie-rock.

Should I rank the songs? Maybe. Black Love works so well as a piece, that I hesitate to do so, but here goes nothing.

11. My Enemy
10. Night by Candlelight
9. Double Day
8. Bulletproof
7. Summer's Kiss
6. Crime Scene Part One
5. Honky's Ladder
4. Going to Town
3. Blame, Etc.
2. Step Into the Light
1. Faded

Next Week on Long Player: Alabama - Feels So Right and The Closer You Get..