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Album Review: Afghan Whigs, 'Do To The Beast'

by Barb Abney

April 14, 2014

afghan whigs do to the beast
Afghan Whigs' album, 'Do To The Beast', releases April 15, 2014.
© 2014 Sub Pop Records.

      If you've spent 10 minutes in a conversation with me, you know a few simple things. I am from the Cincinnati area, love Skyline Chili and The Afghan Whigs. But before the Afghan Whigs and even Skyline Chili, there was soul in Cincinnati in the form of King Records, who released recordings from James Brown, Joe Tex, Hank Ballard and many, many more.

As the '90s ushered in the heyday of "alternative" music, many bands seemed to adopt a sound to match their fashion. But The Afghan Whigs were different. While they could rock hard enough to melt your face off, it was delivered with a healthy dose of Cincinnati soul.

Rocking is what brought them to the attention of Sub Pop records in the first place, as they were the first band signed to the label that weren't from the northwestern part of the country. Soul is what set them apart, making them an anomaly to some and a cult favorite to others.

The nature of being a cult favorite means that while they may not be a household name, they mean the world to some of us and there's a certain exclusivity about that. As fans, we revel in finding each other and asking the burning question, "Gentlemen or Black Love?" We can't understand why The Afghan Whigs aren't bigger than this artist or that one. They're obviously dripping in more talent than someone who just graduated from the American Idol school of rock. They can sell out shows wherever they go. Yet, they're not on the cover of Rolling Stone. To us, they're almost like a secret the rest of the world hasn't quite learned yet.

When the band went on an extended hiatus more than a decade ago, we clung to the music of The Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins, Staggering Statistics and Moon Maan, always with the hope that someday we'd hear from "The Whigs" again. And in late 2011, we did in the form of an announcement that the band would be reforming the next year for the All Tomorrow's Parties festival. A pair of amazing covers were released, dates were played and hopes were raised that the Afghan Whigs would record another full length.

Over the next few months, we waited. We heard whispers and assumptions, educated guesses and insider information. Contacts who were "sworn to secrecy" promised that a new record was forthcoming. For those like me, Do To The Beast is the definition of "highly anticipated."

I would be remiss not to mention the departure of guitarist Rick McCollum. He will certainly be missed on stage. But the expanded line-up has allowed the guitars to become an even bigger part of the record.

Do To The Beast may finally be the record that puts The Afghan Whigs on the front cover of those glossy music magazines, at last!

The album begins with "Parked Outside," a tune that literally blasts in demanding attention with Greg Dulli's voice caterwauling and pleading over searing guitars and a driving beat.

"Matamoras" is a cacophony of sonic bombs and incendiary guitars that ignite and meld with the violins to become the devil's fiddlers. "Matamoras" delicately segues into "It Kills" and I swear I hear those same trains from the intros of the Whigs' tunes "Faded" and "Crime Scene Part 1." And Van Hunt's vocal bridge is amazingly Prince-esque.

The first single from Do To The Beast is "Algiers", a gritty barn-burner that conjures images of a spaghetti western even before you watch the video depicting it that way.

The piano in the beginning strains of "Lost In The Woods" is as spooky as a scene from Eyes Wide Shut. The lyrical pattern of Dulli's delivery intertwines Soul II Soul's "Back To Life" and The Doors' "People Are Strange" and seem to rise into happiness.

"Lottery" sounds like a lost Congregation-era Whigs track peppered with Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" and delivers on the rocking, even as it rolls into "Can Rova," which could be a jangly, dance version of "Dust In The Wind" amidst the atmosphere of Radiohead's "How To Disappear Completely" with a gentle falsetto.

"Royal Cream" is a mic drop of a tune. It easily could have been the album's closer, all full of swagger in its lyrics and ferocity in its delivery. The crossfade from this tune into "I Am Fire" is the smoothest on the CD. (I was reminded of where my crossfade obsession began 20 years ago, as these tunes melt into each other seamlessly.) A few handclaps later, the mood has softened. As Dulli sings "I succinctly, distinctly, completely knew …", we hear a tenderness and frailty that we've never heard before, and the percussion keeps us hanging on the ride.

The album's closing track is "These Sticks." Greg Dulli says this song is a "clear revenge fantasy." I can't help but see the scene from Kill Bill Volume 1 where The Bride battles O-Ren Ishii.

If there is a mood you can pinpoint, there's a song on this record for that mood! Love, betrayal, hate, jealousy, shame even elation … all seem to be well represented.

Do To The Beast is a record many have waited 16 years for — and in my opinion, it is well worth the wait! It is a rock album for deep thinkers and deep feelers who like soul music.

Have you heard the album? What do you think of it? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.