Whiggers Unite!: New Afghan Whigs Songs Reviewed

(photos by Sam Holden; courtesy of Rhino Records)

New Afghan Whigs songs are less than two months away! I’ll write more about my personal feelings about The Whigs and their legacy (and my own experiences with their music) closer to the May 1 release date of the new Unbreakable retrospective. But, as promised, here’s a review of the two new songs — “I’m a Soldier” and “Magazine” — that appear on the disc.

Unbreakable is essentially a band-sanctioned mix tape; if you’re a die-hard fan, you almost certainly have every song on the collection (excepting the new ones, of course). Whigs albums have always had a perfect flow, and the track order of this one is in line with that. The songs aren’t presented chronologically like many “best of” comps (it starts with 1990’s “Retarded,” which is followed by “Crazy” from the band’s last album in 1998). But, while the sound quality shifts from track to track as the budgets increased and studios got better over the years, there is a surprising cohesiveness to the collection. (Although many will no doubt just put the songs on “shuffle” anyway; iPod culture is not only injuring the album concept but it’s making retrospective track programming obsolete as well.)

The band “matured,” of course, but all the tracks here share a similar sense of shadowy mystique and internal tumult — strangely, even when in “party time” mode the songs have that trademark “cool sadness” — whether directly in the lyrics or just in the general aural aura.

I’ve listened to the whole collection in order several times and, along with the realization that every old Whigs song reminds me of a very specific period in my life, I’m struck by how the track positioning has made me listen to some songs differently. My least favorite Whigs CD is 1965, primarily because their “Saturday night” album (as pal/former Cincy musician/current Philly radio champ Dan Reed calls it in the entertaining liner notes) moved away somewhat from the “darkness” that endeared me to the group in the first place. But there’s something about hearing a song like “Uptown Again” (actually one of the more “traditional” Whigs songs from 1965) bookended by their cover of The Supremes’ “Come See About Me” and their finest shady Pop song moment, “What Jail Is Like,” that makes me appreciate the bigger picture of the Whigs’ discography.

While this is still essentially a highlight reel, it’s an extremely all-encompassing one (though fans will no doubt have quibbles about what was left off). I for one can’t get used to “I’m Her Slave” not being preceded by Congregation‘s opening snippet, “Her Against Me.” Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, here’s what the new ones are all about:

“I’m A Soldier”
This is the first single from the album, which will reportedly have an accompanying video. It was recorded in Memphis and L.A. in 2006 and features the core group plus former backup singer Susan Marshall, Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers co-hort Mathias Schneeberger on guitar and clavinet and producer/instrumentalist Rick Steff (who has worked with the Twilights, James Blood Ulmer and Todd Snider, to name a few) on organ.

“I’m a Soldier” has a lot of “expected” Whigs’ characteristics — that chiming two-string guitar grind; Rick McCollum’s slippery slide-guitar curls; dramatic, cinematic song structure; John Curley’s jet-plane bass thump; dancey, funky drumming from Michael Horrigan; and a hands-to-the-sky, almost Gospel-y chorus hook sung by Marshall and Dulli (the chorus refrain: “All I need”) that matches the churchy organ swells.

It’s hardly the best Whigs song ever crafted — in fact, it’s not even the better of the two newbies — but the shape-shifting outro/coda saves it (“And in a little while/You’ll feel stranger/Up in your mind”). The hooks just aren’t very strong, and the track seems meandering and unfocused. It might grow on me, but the first several listens have left me feeling a little disappointed.

It’s like all of the parts are there but something’s lacking. Perhaps the whole “not being a band for five years” thing has something to do with it. It’s like they have the height and distance, they make the right moves … but they fail to stick the landing. Iffy choice for “first single” status.

This one was written shortly before the band broke up and shares as much sonically with the Twilight Singers’ first album as it does the Whigs’ output (perhaps not surprisingly, given that Dulli was well into his “side project” when his old band called it a day in ’01). Recorded in Cincinnati and Memphis between 2001 and 2006 — not continually, of course! — the song again features Marshall on backup. A surprise guest here is Dana Hamblen, singer/drummer for long-running Indie Pop faves The Fairmount Girls. Dana sings backup and a fantastic, ethereal lead vocal during the song’s churning bridge.

“Magazine” captures that “morning after” feel of some of the Whigs’ greatest tracks (like Congregation’s “Let Me Lie to You” or Black Love‘s “Faded,” which are both included on the retrospective). The more atmospheric song starts with an echoing, locust-like, circular whirl, melotron hums and piano as Dulli sings what sounds like “When you caught my eye/I was blind to all infirmity” in a croony whisper. The laid-back but soulful song builds on what appears to be a mix of programmed and real drums (which come in and out) and features streaks of falsetto that stream across the track like falling stars (a la “Faded”).

The song starts and stops a lot, like a deep anxiety-ridden sigh. It’s a great track that stands up well against the other songs presented here. My only complaint: At 3:20, it feels a little short. Seems the Whigs are still great at leaving fans wanting more.

If I were to “grade” these songs, I’d give “Soldier” a “B-” and “Magazine” a strong “A.” That averages to a “B+” for both, which should give Whiggers (my new name for Whigs fanatics) good reason to be excited about the new stuff.

— Mike Breen

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One Comment on “Whiggers Unite!: New Afghan Whigs Songs Reviewed”

  1. citybeat Says:

    Spin.com has a feature on Greg talking about the new songs. There’s also a link to stream the song, “I’m A Soldier.” Go get it!

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