Well, I initially planned to make this a weekly series, but you can see how well that worked out, as this is only the fourth installment. Anyway, my over-ambition aside, this entry is about Cincinnati quartet The Afghan Whigs.
#4 The Afghan Whigs
The band formed in 1986 when the members—vocalist/rhythm guitarist Greg Dulli, bassist John Curley, lead guitarist Rick McCollum and drummer Steve Earle—were attending the University of Cincinnati. Curley did not attend the university like the others, though. He made his way to Cincinnati to intern as a photographer for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Later, Paul Buchignani took over duties as drummer after Earle left.
The Whigs were part of a group of garage-inspired, indie bands formed in the late 80s and early 90s, which also included The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr. and The Goo Goo Dolls (before they recorded Dizzy Up the Girl). I’ve always contended (well, not always but since I first heard the song “Blame, Etc.”) that the Whigs are one of the most underrated and underappreciated bands of the 90s. Frankly, I think they were just lost in the crowd of other indie-rock bands from the era.
What set them apart was the obvious fusion and acknowledgement of soul and R&B in their music. It’s a style that some current bands have adopted, such as Fitz and the Tantrums (perhaps to a greater degree), but it really stood out at the time. The hallmark of their sound is Dulli’s vocals, which range from almost tortured on songs such as “Retarded” and “Honky’s Ladder” to intimate on songs such as “Neglekted.”
Dulli’s lyrics stand out as well. They often revolve around doubt, self-loathing and not-so-healthy relationships. They’re dark bordering on unseemly in select songs, which, to me, is always a good thing because it means they’re honest.
However, Dulli doesn’t deserve sole credit for the Whigs’ full, layered sound. They relied on a precise interplay between McCollum and Dulli’s guitars, while Curley and Earle (and later Buchignani) offered an always solid backbone as the rhythm section. The Whigs often alternated between songs with quick tempos and lingering, slow-paced songs. There are also quite a few songs that are a mix of the two—songs such as “City Soleil,” which starts slowly and steadily builds upon itself.
Their later releases also saw the incorporation of more complex arrangements and additions of keyboards, horns and backup singers. With those additions, the Whigs created a dramatic, almost cinematic, sound that complimented their soul and R&B influences.
The Whigs’ first two albums, Big Top Halloween and Up in It, are noticeably rougher compared to their later work, but the foundations of their signature sound are still there. Their third album, Congregation, released on Sub Pop, really showed what the band was capable of and set up the release of Gentlemen in 1993.
Gentlemen garnered critical acclaim and the single “Debonair” earned the Whigs some airtime on MTV and college rock radio stations. The Whigs followed up the success of Gentlemen with Black Love, released on Elektra. The 1996 album didn’t score as highly with critics and received some backlash from fans, which was mostly unwarranted. The album contains some of the best, and some of my favorite, Whigs’ songs including the aforementioned “Blame, Etc.” and “Honky’s Ladder” as well as “Going to Town.”
Having already replaced one member and with several members living in different states, 1998’s 1965 was the Whigs’ last release. It also marked another record label hop, being released on Columbia. However, the album regained some of the critical acclaim lost with Black Love and deservedly so. 1965 is basically a microcosm of the Whigs’ back catalogue, combining all of the best elements from previous albums.
The band decided to call it quits in 2000. Rock fans have wanted a reunion for years, but sadly, I don’t think it’s going to happen.