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The Afghan Whigs

+ {The Twilight Singers} + {Greg Dulli} + {The Gutter Twins}

A slacker’s take on the garage-grunge scene and spearheaded by slurring singer-songwriter/guitarist Greg Dulli, The AFGHAN WHIGS never quite reached the heady peaks of their peers such as NIRVANA, PEARL JAM and SOUNDGARDEN. Bravely attempting to inject soul, R&B and punk into the mix, the ‘Whigs followed in the footsteps of The REPLACEMENTS, HUSKER DU and DINOSAUR JR., and certainly had their moments before Dulli duly branched out and extended his range in The TWILIGHT SINGERS.
Formed autumn ’86 in Cincinnati, Ohio, via Denver, Colorado, Greg Dulli – apparently just out of jail for pissing in front of a cop! – was introduced to lead guitarist Rick McCollum by inmate John Curley, a bassist doing time for minor drug offences. Roping in drummer Steve Earle (no, not that one), Dulli abandoned his Black Republicans combo to write music in the open spaces of Arizona.
AFGHAN WHIGS opened their account in the early months of 1988 with the independently released BIG TOP HALLOWEEN (1988) {*4}, an unconvincing attempt at matching 70s-styled rock with guttural proto-grunge and some half-baked, booze-drenched exhortations. Still, the debut still managed to convince Jonathan Poneman of the aspiring Sub Pop Records to bring them north-west to the heart of grunge… Seattle.
An extension to their contract was signed after the single, `I Am The Sticks’ (with temp drummer filling in for Earle). And when Seattle maestro Jack Endino offered to produce the band further, UP IN IT (1990) {*6}, was released. Self-loathing, pompous and heavy as lead, Dulli and Co sparkled through songs such as `Retarded’, `Hey Cuz’, You My Flower’ and `Son Of The South’, all worked around the same formula, hinting at their wider country and soul influences.
A further set for Sub Pop, CONGREGATION (1992) {*8}, brought the ‘Whigs critical plaudits if not commercial rewards. Defined as much by Greg’s grimy grunge grit and McCollum’s incendiary lead guitar licks, `Turn On The Water’, `I’m Her Slave’ and `Conjure Me’, the record proved a pivotal turning point for the group. Having already covered Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s `The Temple’ and vinyl sides `My World Is Empty Without You’ (DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES) and `Chalk Outline’ (Paul K & The Weathermen), added clout came courtesy of cathartic covers EP, `Uptown Avondale’. Featuring the soulful `Come See About Me’ (another Holland-Dozier-Holland-authored hit for ROSS & The SUPREMES), `Beware’ (AL GREEN), `True Love Travels On A Gravel Road’ (a hit for PERCY SLEDGE) and `Band Of Gold’ (a FREDA PAYNE hit), it set them on the right – or righteous – path to… er… glory.
The AFGHAN WHIGS were subsequently plucked from the mire of grunge cultdom by Elektra Records in the corporate stampede following NIRVANA’s success. A former film student, Dulli cannily negotiated the right to creative control over the band’s videos, his acting ambitions realised in ‘94 when he landed the part of LENNON in former BEATLES bassist Stuart Sutcliffe’s story, BackBeat.
The Whigs’ major label debut, GENTLEMEN (1993) {*8}, pushed all the right critical buttons, fleshing out their grungy noir-soul sound against a typically hard-bitten lyrical background. Although the record surprisingly failed to crack the US charts, it scored a Top 60 placing in Britain, the cinematic-styled shot-on-location songs, from the title track to `My Curse’ (featuring Marcy May of SCRAWL) and other abrasive giants like `Fountain And Fairfax’, `What Jail Is Like’, `Debonair’ and `Now You Know’, Dulli swaggered into his own personal and religious gear switch.
Dulli’s stage-only rendition of BARRY WHITE’s `Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe’, was an indication of where The AFGHAN WHIGS were headed (Paul Buchignani superseding Earle) with the long-awaited BLACK LOVE (1996) {*6}. An even more soul-centric offering, the album almost scraped into the British Top 40 for Mute Records (No.79 at home), although Greg’s larynx sounded rather off-key and sprawling. `Crime Scene Pt.1’, `My Enemy’, `Honky’s Ladder’ and `Going To Town’ were hostile highlights, although their dalliance with swagger-JAGGER-funk was misplaced in an era when grunge was fading fast.
Columbia Records took up the reins for er… 1998’s 1965 {*8}, a celebration of rock music’s debt to the power of sex. Recorded in New Orleans, the album was hailed as their long promised masterpiece, a writhing, sweaty slab of post-grunge voodoo soul. Michael Horrigan had filled the vacant berth of Paul, while soulful backing singers combined with guest artists, ALEX CHILTON, Steve Ferrone and George Drakoulias, on a sincere set of groovy grunge pieces; best examples `Somethin’ Hot’, `Crazy’, `Uptown Again’, `The Slide Song’ and `John The Baptist’.
Lounge-lizard Dulli matched this mildly aggressive-fuelled record later in the year, after a brawl with a steward earned him a few days in intensive care and a fractured skull… er to boot. Subsequently the singer threatened action on the Texas nightclub even though it was alleged that he was the main instigator.
On a mellower note, a long-incubated side project, The TWILIGHT SINGERS, finally saw an official release at the turn of the decade. Initiated in ‘97 as a collaboration with singers Harold Chichester (HOWLIN’ MAGGIE), Shawn Smith (BRAD, PIGEONHED, SATCHEL, etc.) and Horrigan, the semi-supergroup was originally conceived as a funereal trawl through New Orleans, as leaked demos revealed. A dispute with Elektra saw it shelved until 2000, when Dulli’s new label Sony took up their option to release it in lieu of any new Whigs product, albeit in radically remixed form. Remoulded by English beatmeisters FILA BRAZILIA, TWILIGHT AS PLAYED BY THE TWILIGHT SINGERS (2000) {*6} was a very 90s sounding affair, slo-mo, triple-filtered soul (the track `Last Temptation’ could be a sanitized HAPPY MONDAYS) more suited to lazy days than dark twilights.
With the ‘Whigs officially laid to rest in 2001, Dulli (and a rotating cast of backing players) were to make The TWILIGHT SINGERS an ongoing concern, even if an early attempt at a follow-up was again put on hold due to the death of close friend, film director Ted Demme. BLACKBERRY BELLE {*7} was finally issued in 2003 by Brit imprint One Little Indian, its lead track `Martin Eden’, named for the Jack London novel which partly inspired it. Oppressive, morosely soulful, narcotically funky and 100% organic, the album featured cameos from figures as diverse as onetime PRINCE prodigy Apollonia Kotero, SCREAMING TREES soul-mate MARK LANEGAN, Mathias Schneeberger, PETRA HADEN, drummer Stanton Moore and ALVIN YOUNGBLOOD HART. Shifting rhythms, atmospheric and looking first-person through tinted shades from a hotel window, the doleful Dulli turned claustrophobia into an art form as he reflected on better times in `Esta Noche’, `Teenage Wristband’ and `Decatur St’.
Dulli’s third TWILIGHT SINGERS album was a full-length covers set, SHE LOVES YOU (2004) {*6}, indulging the man’s love of soul, jazz and baroque pop. Smoky and simmering without boiling over, radical re-workings of BJORK’s `Hyperballad’, BILLIE HOLIDAY’s `Strange Fruit’, LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM’s `What Makes You Think You’re The One’, JOHN COLTRANE’s `A Love Supreme’, MARVIN GAYE’s `Please Stay (Once You Go Away)’, George Gershwin’s `Summertime’ and folk standard, `Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair’, among others, were adequate; incidentally the others were `Feeling Of Gaze’ (MAZZY STAR), `Too Tough To Die’ (MARTINA TOPLEY-BIRD), `Real Love’ (MARY J. BLIGE) and `Hard Time Killing Floor’ (SKIP JAMES).
Dulli’s AFGHAN WHIGS were of course noted for their twisted, mainly B-side covers, listed here: `The Dark End Of The Street’ (DAN PENN), `Ready’ (SCRAWL), `Little Girl Blue’ (Rodgers-Hart), `I Keep Coming Back’ (Austell-Graham), `If I Only Had A Heart’ (from The Wizard Of Oz), `Creep’ (TLC), `Mr. Superlove’ (ASS PONYS), `Revenge’ (PATTI SMITH), `Easily Persuaded’ (MARTHA REEVES & THE VANDELLAS), `You’ve Changed’ (Carey-Fisher) , `Moon River’ (Henry Mancini), `If There’s A Hell Below (We’re All Going To Go)’ (CURTIS MAYFIELD), `Superstition’ (STEVIE WONDER), `Miss World’ (HOLE), `Papa Was A Rascal’ (James Booker) and `Lost In The Supermarket’ (The CLASH).
Yet it wasn’t until the abrasive POWDER BURNS (2006) {*8}, that a critical consensus deemed Dulli’s TWILIGHT SINGERS to have finally harnessed the magnetic sludge of prime `Whigs for his newfound career: the soul was deeper, the rock louche, its high-wire ambience shot through with the small matter of the hurricane-devastated city where it was recorded, i.e. New Orleans. Augmented by drummer Greg Wieczorek (as usual), guitar man Jon Skibic, bassist Scott Ford, co-writer Manuel Agnelli (of Italians AFTERHOURS) and a guest spot for ANI DiFRANCO, songs such as `Forty Dollars’, `Sublime’ and `There’s Been An Accident’, raised the bar once again for Dulli and Co.
Just how far GREG DULLI had come was obvious in retrospective comparison with AMBER HEADLIGHTS (2005) {*6}, a Whigs-esque solo precursor to “…Belle” shelved earlier in the decade and delivered on his own Infernal imprint; check out `Get The Wheel’, which became `Follow You Down’ on the “Belle” set and `So Tight’.
Friends since they met way back in ’89 (they also swapped guest spots on each others projects), Greg Dulli and the aforementioned MARK LANEGAN put their skulls together to come up with The GUTTER TWINS. Rehearsed and recorded over the course of the previous few years (or so), SATURNALIA (2008) {*7} sold reasonably well to bubble just outside the Top 100. Not unlike gloomy Greg’s Twilight(s) combo, in which manic Mark was a feature, the double-headed doom-monster for Sub Pop certainly appealed to both contingents, its gospel-tinged and retro-religious aspect on a Richter-scale high on `God’s Children’, `The Body’, `Idle Hands’, et al; note that Mark alone composed `Bete Noire’ and `Who Will Lead Us?’.
With Dulli expected to release a bona fide solo record (can one really count 2008’s mp3 “Live At Triple Door”?), Sub Pop were happy to stick by Dulli’s TWILIGHT SINGERS for another set, DYNAMITE STEPS (2011) {*7}. Surrounding himself with a star-studded indie cast, including LANEGAN, folk-star ANI DiFRANCO, JOSEPH ARTHUR, CARINA ROUND, PETRA HADEN and The VERVE’s Nick McCabe, the man in the spotlight seemed to pull it off – only just. Gifted with a nocturnal vox that compared well with NICK CAVE, RICHARD HAWLEY and other sad-core croakers, Dulli was indeed dangerous when he ignited his fiery temperament on `Waves’, but it was in the darker moments like `Get Lucky’, `Last Night In Town’ and `Gunshots’, that he excelled.
One could be assured that the re-formation of The AFGHAN WHIGS for long-time-coming DO TO THE BEAST (2014) {*7}, Dulli was in his element again. Roping in fellow original John Curley to assist where necessary, alongside an indie all-star cast (Dave Rosser, Jon Skibic, Mark McGuire, Cully Symington and Rick G. Nelson), the makeshift band were guaranteed transatlantic Top 40 spots. The ferocity and fire of Greg’s croaky croon, the grim gospel-ish backing and that blooded-footprint-in-the-snow approach generated much ado about something for `Lost In The Woods’, `Royal Cream’, `Parked Outside’ and semi-classic `Algiers’. One that grows stronger with each listen.
© MC Strong 1997-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2014

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