Sometimes change is good
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“If they’ve seen it all, show ‘em something new,” shouts Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli during the opening verse of Do to the Beast. A 16-year gap between studio albums for any band would likely mean changes. For a band like The Afghan Whigs, though, who were always, as Dulli describes them, “wildly out of step” with their scene—serving up a mash of decadent soul and hard rock in their heyday while the masses ravenously gorged on grunge—a different type of offering feels inevitable.
After all this time, a reinvention makes more sense than a rehash. While the Whigs sat dormant and hibernating, Dulli evolved and flourished creatively. Projects like The Gutter Twins (alongside Mark Lanegan) and his rotating Twilight Singers collective offered leather glove-like fits for further exploring the always dark, often erotic, emotional and psychological environs the songwriter made his stomping grounds while fronting the Whigs. So, really, why reunite at all? “I did it because it’s mine, and I want to,” explained Dulli after the Whigs reformed as a live act in 2011. “I wrote six albums’ worth of songs I’d like to sing again.”
Writing and recording a new album for a band once thought a long shot to ever reform is a different beast, though. Different from triumphantly sharing a stage with Usher at SXSW in 2013 or from perking the ears of festivalgoers either too forgetful or too young to recall “Debonair” infiltrating mid-‘90s airwaves. And given that lead guitarist Rick McCollum departed earlier this year—leaving only Dulli and original bassist John Curley, along with several of Dulli’s regular cohorts from his other projects—longtime fans who’ve been salivating for a new Whigs record for years may skeptically ask, “Is this really an Afghan Whigs album?”
And the answer is, yes, it is, in as much as Greg Dulli remains at the helm and chooses to label it a Whigs album. From a fan’s perspective, though, Do to the Beast spins less like a throwback to the old-school Whigs and more like a blend of elements from Twilight Singers records and the band’s recent, stunning soul covers of “See and Don’t See” (Marie Lyons) and Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes”. This reinvented band reflects Dulli circa 2014, and this record sparks fresh intrigue but sadly never quite rekindles what made the Whigs so unique in the first place.
Nobody familiar with the film noir-inspired Black Love or any Twilight Singers albums (which often include the line “shot on location” in the liner credits) will be surprised by the cinematic qualities of these new songs. Lead single “Algiers”, with its oldies drumbeat and Spaghetti Western flavor, instantly conjures a silver screen visual in the listener’s mind but plays out to no significant end. Conversely, the hushed and far simpler “Can Rova” manages to capture the possibility and desperation that one last nightfall brings only to resolve in an ambiguous final breath of resignation as city lights flicker just before daybreak. Better still, “Lost in the Woods” begins with a sinister whispered “Surprise, surprise/ I’ll have you know I’ve come to see you die” before unfolding into callous, toying conversing over plunking piano and upbeat swells and harmonies that emotionally belie the inevitable conclusion: “Now you’re gone, and you ain’t coming back/ …you’re lost in the woods.” Dulli, manipulative and calculating as House of Cards antihero Frank Underwood here, seals his target’s fate with the chilling, repeated promise “You know me by now.”
Dulli’s pre-release reveal that the songs of Do to the Beast were conceived in pairs may also speak to that cinematic, storytelling quality but have little effect on the listening experience. For instance, the swift-moving “Royal Cream” crashes and bleeds into the methodical percussion of companion “I Am Fire”, but despite sharing chords, the latter feels like a mere cool down rather than a continuation or catharsis. An exception appears in the thematic marriage between opener “Parked Outside” and closing track “These Sticks”, which Dulli dubs the record’s mother and father, respectively. “You’re gonna make me break down and cry,” wails the man (or woman) parked outside a lover’s home. Does “These Sticks”, then—concluding the record with the line “I’ve come to make you pay”—fulfill the opening song’s threat of showing “how the hand becomes the fuse?” Regardless of whether or not these songs depict the same spurned lover, or if the closing song’s events unfold in reality or remain purely a revenge fantasy, they allow Dulli to clearly demarcate the extremes between which Do to the Beast prowls: the brewing storm and the bloody comeuppance.
Musically, this album also unveils a new incarnation of the band. Classic Whigs guitar leads are largely eschewed in favor of the same type of moody, densely layered arrangements that ride, crest, and crash like waves across Dulli’s Twilight Singers records. We also get to hear that more soulful Whigs sound hinted at by the aforementioned Lyons and Ocean covers. “It Kills”, the album’s first exhale and real gem, finds a wounded Dulli softly crooning, “Over and over/ There ain’t nobody else/ Imperceptible the lines I draw to you/ It kills to watch you love another.” Everything here, from Dulli’s lonely, pining delivery over keys to the orchestral swells and mix of piercing and breathy backing vocals that enter mid-song, feels so free-flowing and natural, a welcome evolution of the Whigs’ soul-indebted tendencies.
Ultimately, though, Do to the Beast wants for something that maybe The Afghan Whigs no longer have or care to offer: that brazen, reckless counterpunch that Rick McCollum’s leads or even Dulli’s patented shout-sing always brought to balance out the more soulful, pensive part of the band’s dynamic. A track like second single “The Lottery”, for instance, begs for that type of debauched intervention but instead continues smoothly, Dulli’s chorus vocals rolled right into the flow without so much as creating a ripple—like a hospital heart monitor sans the periodic inverted spikes. And while, yes, the beat-driven vocal of a line like “I’m so excited you decided to come over and beg” (“Matamoros”) may draw from the same relative emotional palette as, say, “Got you where I want you, motherfucker” (“Honky’s Ladder”, from Black Love), the danger and debauchery register so much more enjoyable when Dulli adopts the latter’s in-your-face, finger-in-your-chest method of delivering bad news.
It’s not a very fruitful exercise to try to pinpoint exactly where The Twilight Singers end and The Afghan Whigs begin here, because, after all, Greg Dulli essentially is both of those projects. Suffice it to say, though, that those two bands conjoin on Do to the Beast, a worthwhile evolution that will still leave old-school Whigs fans longing for the days of Gentlemen.
Essential Tracks: “It Kills”, “Lost in the Woods”, and “Parked Outside”Matt Melis
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