Album Review: The Afghan Whigs – In Spades (Sub Pop, 2017)

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The Afghan Whigs

In Spades

Sub Pop, 2017

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Being one of the first non-Seattle bands to sign to Sub Pop Records wasn’t the only thing that differentiated Cincinnati, Ohio’s Afghan Whigs. The fact that they added a healthy respect for soul music and blaxploitation to their grunge noise was another signifier that these guys were a different animal.

Part of the post-Nirvana major label signing frenzy, the Afghan Whigs released Gentlemen (1993), Black Love (1996) and 1965 (1998) all to rapturous critical praise but only managed to amass a cult following. They had some famous fans: comedian Dennis Leary, actor Donal Logue and directer Ted Demme all publicly sang the band’s praises. Frontman Greg Dulli (pronounced “Dooley” as explained to me by Lin Brehmer on an XRT golf outing – I was saying it wrong for over a decade) had a blue-collar work ethic that was balanced by his on-record aloof darkness, writing mostly about the sepia-toned aftermath of failed love.

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Around the turn of the millennium, Dulli decided to delve even deeper into the darkness with The Twilight Singers, a revolving cast of indie ne’er-do-wells like Mark Lanegan, Ani DiFranco and Shawn Smith helped Dulli flesh out a bold series of albums that struck a chord (especially the album-long eulogy for Ted Demme, 2003’s Blackberry Belle). After a Whigs hits compilation was released, shows began getting planned and Dulli decided to revive what brought him into the conversation 20 years ago: The Afghan Whigs.

In Spades, out May 5th on Sub Pop, finds Greg Dulli unleashing a series of pointed polemics that share a resemblance (mostly in feel) to the Whigs high water-mark Black Love. Opener “Birdland” doesn’t hit you over the head instead it invites you inside for a glass of poisoned water. Then “Arabian Heights” takes you for a night ride through a decimated city. “Toy Automatic” sounds like something Bjork would record if she ever wanted front a rock band again. “Oriole” glides on a two-chord acoustic strum that evokes an unsettling nervousness akin to the night before your own execution.

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Will In Spades garner the band new fans? It’s hard to say. Will their blend of film noir, confessional poetry and hard rock make an impact on the millennial generation that doesn’t need to write a song about their anguish when they can make an instant social media post? Who knows. Actually, there is more in common than you think between emo-rappers like Drake or Kanye and the soulful dread of In Spades.

A light does eventually break through the black wood-paneling in the form of “I Got Lost,” a late-in-the-album half-ballad that Dulli and company does so well. A stately grand piano, a choir and tape-loop effects bring a hazy surreal lift-off that segues into “Into The Floor” for a crushing coda. Here’s to hoping that In Spades isn’t indeed a coda to the Afghan Whigs story.

Written by Andy Derer

Visit the Official Afghan Whigs Website

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