Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Afghan Whigs. Black Love (Elektra, 1996)

“It was a Saturday/ I came home early drunk with love/ And other things/ I must confess/ I love it all.”

In 1993, the Afghan Whigs released one of the darkest (if not the darkest; I’m hard pressed to think of darker) albums of the ‘90s with Gentlemen, an open wound of a record, a searing examination of emotional and chemical abuse and the wreckage it leaves behind. By Gentlemen, the Whigs had evolved from a good-but-not-great Sub Pop mainstay (and one of the label’s first non-Seattle signings: they were from Cincinnati) into a formidable mixture of brooding anger and soulful swagger, as the fairly generic grunge tendencies of their initial releases were finally (thankfully) overtaken by their Motown and Curtom influences. The result was one of the most distinctive musical statements of the decade.

However, while many would consider Gentlemen to be the Whigs’ best, my money is on the follow-up, Black Love. Released in 1996, it’s Black Love that best expresses the band’s mission statement, mining ‘60s and ‘70s soul for its inherent darkness and vulnerability and forging the results into a mixture of heavy rock and hip-shaking R&B (more Sam Cooke than Boyz II Men). I’d been a huge fan of Gentlemen, and was hoping for more of that same tuneful menace. I wasn’t disappointed: Black Love is basically Gentlemen’s sequel. If Gentlemen was a long day’s journey into night, Black Love is the next day, and things don’t look any better in the sun. “Step into the light, baby,” singer Greg Dulli pleads at one point, “and see the trouble I’m in.”

The liner notes to the album read that Black Love was “shot on location,” underscoring the cinematic nature of the songs. The Afghan Whigs trafficked in character studies and scenarios set to music, offering the listener an open window into a variety of fucked up situations and abusive relationships made worse by infidelity, drugs, alcohol, suspicion, jealousy, and/or a combination thereof. Each track on Black Love is like a little vignette, a self-contained little world of damage and decay.

None of which, admittedly, would be any fun to listen to if the music wasn’t so effing great. Most of the songs are built around driving, repetitive riffs lifted from the Stax/Motown fakebook, augmented with well-placed string stabs and organ rave-ups. The blaxploitation strings and congas on “Blame, Etc.,” and the stagger-step guitar pushing “My Enemy,” to take just two examples, are exciting and dynamic, stealing from classic soul while simultaneously worshiping at its altar. And even the pretty bits sound pretty evil: the shimmering chords in “Going to Town” shimmer like an oil slick.

While the lyrics can at times wander uncomfortably close to genre-aping self-parody (“Got you where I want you, motherfucker/ I’ve got five up on your dime” – take it easy, guy. Shaft was just a movie), Dulli’s vocals demonstrate impressive range, climbing from rich baritones to delicate upper-register croons and hitting pretty much everything in between. Furthermore, it's on this record that Dulli's sinister Lothario persona reaches full bloom, the singer as charmer with a heart of glass and a mouthful of bile.

I’m a fan of Dulli’s post-Whigs project the Twilight Singers, which retains the Whigs’ twisted rhythms while incorporating more electronic elements. However, the Twilight Singers is essentially a Greg Dulli vehicle; the Afghan Whigs were an actual band, with everyone pulling their own weight and making a distinct contribution. And Black Love is their high-water mark. It’s been over a decade, and I still turn to Black Love every time I need a dose of darkness wrapped in the unassailable cool of vintage soul and R&B.