Proto-grungers return with soft release
The Afghan Wigs are alternative rock royalty. The band was signed to Sub Pop in 1989, at a time when the label was setting the stage for the grunge explosion of the early ’90s by nurturing bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana. To give you an idea of where the Whigs fell in the mix, they performed a package tour with Mudhoney in ’89, another band that defined the grunge sound but never had the blockbuster success of Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains.
Their early sound was defined by Greg Dulli’s screeching vocals and Rick McCollum’s edgy pop rock guitar, as exemplified in their minor college rock hit “Retarded” from 1990. Sure, now the song sounds like every ’90s radio rock hit, but that’s because the Whigs inspired many of the bands that ended up ruling modern rock throughout the decade. Their influence can be heard in bands from Radiohead and Weezer to Silverchair and Nada Surf.
Now, after a long break – the group hasn’t released an album since, confusingly, the record “1965” in 1998 – the Whigs return with “Do To The Beast,” an album that has some really nice moments, but, overall, is too soft and lacks the punch of their early stuff. Part of the problem is, as many critics have noted, the absence of McCollum, whose dynamic sound fueled much of their early, more aggressive stuff.
The opener “Parked Outside,” despite its rather stilted blues riff, has some great moments. Dulli sing-talks the verse in a way that sounds almost uncannily like Mark Arm, the lead singer of Mudhoney, and then does some good ol’ screeching as the guitars get louder. It’s a tune that would’ve fit perfectly on MTV in 1992.
Another highlight is the lead single, “Algiers,” with its classic western atmosphere and piercing falsetto vocals. The composition is complemented by a cinematic video, in which the band is featured performing in the desert while wearing cowboy hats. It gets a bit violent as cowboys are whipped and hung, and once can’t help but wish that some of that action had bled into the music. Even this standout track can feel a bit sleepy.
On the second half of the album, much of the passion fades into polished chords and weak vocals, and the songs start sounding like Tom Petty B-sides. In a recent interview with MusicOMH.com, Dulli said that when he is in the studio recording, he still thinks of records as having two sides. Well, if that’s true, he should have put some more effort into side two.
“Can Rova” aims for the beauty of a Sigur Ros song, but the payoff isn’t good enough, and “Royal Cream” sounds just as boring as anything off the last Kings of Leon album. As a fan of traditional melody, I’m usually all for more singing and less screaming, but the beat needs to have some life in it. The rhythm should make people want to move, to dance a little. But I guess that was never really grunge’s MO – in fact, grunge is very much responsible for ironing out the “roll” in rock ‘n’ roll, and this album doesn’t do anything to disprove that theory. Dulli gets too lost in slow plucking and marching beats and The Afghan Whigs wind up sounding pretty much like every other contemporary rock band.
2 stars out of 5.
DOWNLOAD NOW: “Algiers.”