ALBUM REVIEW: IN SPADES by The Afghan Whigs

The Afghan Whigs are one of those bands who’ve managed to fly under the radar, by-and-large, for most of their existence. Born out of the ashes of a local Cincinnati band called The Black Republicans, and of the musical yearnings of lead singer/songwriter and overall creative driving force Greg Dulli, AW first formed way back in 1986. By the time of the alternative music explosion of the early 90s, the Whigs were garnering heaps of critical praise, guest spots on MTV’s 120 Minutes, multiple soundtrack listings in Dennis Leary films and tv series (Leary’s a big fan), …and precious little in the way of commercial radio play. They just never quite had the breakthrough that alternative giants like Nirvana. STP, and Pearl Jam had.

In fairness, AW have always, if you’ll excuse the cliché, marched to their own beat. Their early, garage rock sound soon developed into an unusual mix of swagger, bluesy funk, and pomp combined with an honest-to-the-point-of-brutal lyrical look at the dark underbelly of relationships and addiction. The sound was the perfect reflection of lead singer Dulli himself. Dulli’s cigarette-fueled monologues on stage between sets were the stuff of legend in the early 90s, sharing his acerbic thoughts on life and relationships for several minutes at a time before launching into another passionately delivered song with the raw, but strangely addictive, signature Dulli sound. Dulli spared no one in his lyrics, not even himself. He would freely admit when he’s the bad guy, he was the reason the situation has gone south. But somehow, he always managed to do it in a way that you’ll still care about what he has to say. While much-loved by a loyal following of AW fans, it’s not an approach that lent itself to feel-good party music or the suburban angst of grunge.

Following a late 90’s break-up, multiple side projects and solo work for Dulli, the Whigs reformed in recent years to start anew. All of which brings us to 2017’s In Spades. Following up the band’s successful 2014 release Do To The Beast, In Spades was released to a lot of anticipation and speculation. Would this be a return to the classic Whigs’ sound of their 90’s heyday, embracing the gritty sounds of 1993’s Gentleman, or the neo-noir theme that embodied 1997’s Black Love? Or would it be more of the smoother sounding, broader musical influences of the previous release and of Dulli’s best known side project, The Twilight Singers?

The answer is: neither, and both.

In Spades is at once new ground for the band, and a loving reminiscence of the best of band’s past. It’s also a rather spooky album, as one might expect from an album cover featuring a 1000-foot tall Lucifer striding amongst the pyramids. (BTW, wouldn’t “1000 Foot Lucifer” be a great name for a 90s electronic band? No? Maybe it’s just me then).

Spooooooky!

The album opens with the organ-accented track “Birdland.” A sentimental, leisurely-paced track, it seems an odd choice to start with, but it works for that same reason. Like an appetizer before dinner, Birdland whets the palate without overwhelming, and hints at the good things to come. From there, the album launches into the complex and frenetic “Arabian Heights.” Rich with percussion, and multiple excursions into vaguely Middle-Eastern sounding riffs, it’s clear that Dulli and company have expanded beyond their traditional funk and classic soul influences.

In Spades is at its most interesting in the middle of things. Two tracks in particular stand out. The first, “Demon in Profile”, is a cynical look at the world of pop star celebrity. The official video features singer-songwriter Har Mar Superstar in the role of a Justin Bieber-like pop phenomenon with a devoted fanbase of teenaged fans (Harlievers?) who swoon at his presence. A darkly humorous premise, as Har Mar, while a gifted performer, looks more like an out-of-work porn star from the 1970s than anything a giddy teenaged girl would have hanging on her bedroom wall. That the illusion and image crafted by the pop industry (perhaps with a bit of devilish help here) can sell anything, is the message.

The second track, “Oriole”, is easily my personal favorite, and also is quite easily the darkest song of the bunch. It is a lonely song of unfulfilled needs, of fleeing, and seeking to fill an emptiness that the seeker himself does not understand. The was a violence in my head/ I was surrounded in my bed/ And from a slender perch/I vowed that I would fly forever. The official (and probably NSFW) video is, fittingly, an homage to Italian horror director Dario Argento’s 70s masterpiece Suspiria.

The remainder of the album is a strong performer, with straight-forward rockers like “Copernicus”, the swaggering, funk-infused “Light as a Feather”, and the surprisingly gentle ballad “I Got Lost”, being the highlights. The album ends with arguably the release’s best track (though not my personal favorite), the powerful “Into the Floor.” Whigs fans will find it slightly reminiscent of the passionate, howling song of heartbreak and betrayal “Bulletproof”, off of 1996’s Black Love. General rock fans will probably think more in terms of some of the great rock epics by Zeppelin, Queen, and other 70’s stadium bands. “Into the Floor” soars darkly, Dulli letting out the pain and frustration of loss and remembrance. Suddenly, it was meant to be, he laments. It’s a great sendoff to a very solid album.

Final Rating: 8/10 stars. A must have for Whigs fans, and strongly recommended in general.

One aging Gen-X-er’s thoughts on life, humor, film, and whatever else tickles my fancy at the moment.