Tuesday, October 30, 2007

[039] Gentlemen

Album: Gentlemen
Artist: The Afghan Whigs
Release Date: October 1993
Label: Elektra
Producer: Greg Dulli

"I'll warn you, if cornered,
I'll scratch my way out of the pen.
Wired, an animal,
The claustrophobia begins.
You think I'm scared of girls,
Well maybe but I'm not afraid of you.
You want to scare me
Then you'll cling to me no matter what I do."
- from "What Jail Is Like"

Sometimes I wonder why The Afghan Whigs weren't a bigger presence in 90's Rock. Part of it, I think, is because Greg Dulli's voice was kind of...not that good, in terms of staying on key, etc. Ya know, Mariah Carey he wasn't (thank god). In other ways, and in my personal opinion, his voice was cool as fuck, but rough is an understatement, and the charts don't like rough; wavering and cracking and careening from end to end, he was a bit of a loon, but he was the loon inside all men. And, having said that, his lyrics explored the darkest corners of the male psyche, the unabashedly sexual, the deviant, the power-hungry, the obsessive, the destructive, self- and otherwise. His words are the thoughts men keep from the women in their lives, the thoughts they rarely share with their buddies, the thoughts they are maybe ashamed of, or make them afraid of themselves. On "Debonair" he sings, "This ain't about regret, it's when I tell the truth", and we all know that, sometimes, the truth hurts. That's why they never broke big - the world can't handle, or doesn't want to admit to itself, that men really think like this.

The word of the day is Fuck. Gentlemen is an album that revolves around the many uses of the word. The relationship illustrated is supremely fucked up. In the traditional sense of the word, there is a lot of intercourse going on...
"Cause she wants love,
And I still want to fuck"
Unfortunately for the couple fucking, there isn't much romance involved any longer; the country-noir ballad "When We Two Parted" positions Dulli's asshole character, the one with the "dick for a brain" that will "sell his ass to you", actually showing remorse for once...
"Every night I spent in that bed with you facing the wall, if I could have only heard you scream, to feel you were alive instead of watching you abandoning yourself"
Not only is Gentlemen a chronicle of losing oneself, and the struggle to regain self-control, it is the chronicle of a man and a woman staying together in order to fuck each other over...
"And we dragged it out so long this time,
Started to make each other sick"
It is the ins and outs of hate-fucking; in "What Jail Is Like", he waves infidelity in her face like a challenge...
"This time the anger's better than the kiss"
They want to mind-fuck each other, to drive the other one to the brink, only to pull them back. The co-dependence is frightening, masquerading as love, but there's no love left. Only twisted addictions - heroin, roleplay, swinging - and it's the power over the other one that gets them off. Just as the psycho/melodrama gets to be too much to handle, Dulli's character ends it finally...
"We bit into a rotten one now didn't we?
Well, baby now it's through."
Oh, but wait, on the Soul cover "I Keep Coming Back", Dulli does just that, against his best judgement mind you. The self-destruction within the relationship is the real addiction, and the vicious cycle will continue to roll along.

One of the essential facets to The Whigs, and to Greg Dulli's songwriting specifically, is the acting involved. Dulli has always seen his music like aural films, eventually making moves to join an axis that included comedian Denis Leary, actor Donal Logue, and (the late) director Ted Demme, whose Beautiful Girls featured The Whigs both perfroming in the film and on the soundtrack. It's on Gentlemen that he perfects his cinematic craft; it's his breakout role, and an Oscar-worthy performance. Dulli's character(s) are so convincing that most critics in the 90's thought he really was this misanthropic, misogynistic male creature capable of unspeakable acts towards women. He was disturbed so much by his own lyrics for "My Curse" that he had to have Marcy Mays from Scrawl come in to sing them, presenting a distinctly male point of view in a female's voice, imagining the woman in this doomed relationship finding a letter or ripped-out journal entry tucked away at the back of her man's desk drawer. His lyrics were painted with an eye for emotional detail, stemming from his love for the classic songs of Motown and Stax and the hyper-detail of N.W.A. and Public Enemy.

But for Dulli, his biggest influences met on Gentlemen, producing the crossroads of The Whigs' sound. Before this album, when they were on Sub Pop Records, they had always been lumped in with that label's signature sound while in reality The Whigs were more of a Midwest band. Their drunken stupors were as unpredictible as The Replacements' were, and their sound really came straight from the Hüsker Dü school of buzzsaw punk. You can hear it in the sweltering heat coming from the chorus on "Be Sweet", swelling from the rush of blood to the crotch, and with "What Jail Is Like" in particular, the band produces probably the last Whigs song to hold on to that sound, sounding like an outtake from side 3 of Zen Arcade. The Minneapolis trio's sonic blueprint had carried the Whigs this far, and on Gentlemen it meshes with what would be the second phase of their career, dictated by Dulli's love of another Minneapolis native, Prince. The Purple One's unfiltered sexuality and all-encompassing artistry attracted Dulli, and the two albums that followed, Black Love and 1965, would both be towering Funk-Rock mini-movies in their own right. But the sound that the crossing over of sonic paths creates on this album is breathtaking, and has rarely been heard again.

Hinging on the the guitar interplay of Rick McCollum and Dulli, they built swirling riffs that were both soaked in the grungy distortion of the age and teetering on the Blaxploitation wah-wah pedals of the 70's. It was Soul-Punk of the highest order. "Debonair" starts as straight up Funk, but the slide into darkness reveals the truth. The combination of the sounds results in a sort of inversion of the Joy Division sound, equally harrowing but crowded where JD was spacious. The pleading insecurity of "Fountain And Fairfax" is the mirror image of "Debonair", starting instead as the kind of tribal thump that Mudhoney might have pounded out before exploding into a full Superfly movement. The second that the title tracks slams into you, you can't help but be moved physically by its off-kilter momentum, produced by the vastly underrated rhythm section of bassist John Curley and drummer Steve Earle, and the chorus just grabs you by the lapels and tosses you back and forth. McCollum's slurred solo is a punch in the mouth, and the way he bends his notes here and throughout the album, to echo Dulli's odd voice, is a genius move. Likewise, "When We Two Parted" and "Now We Know" feature McCollum's signature weeping slide guitar which would be a highlight in the band's discography from here on. The movie score string section on the instrumental closer further points towards the band's future, and their ambition set them apart from the rest of the Grunge pack that they continuously got thrown in with. But do yourself a favor, and brave the wild ride that is The Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen; don't be afraid of the "slobbering" man at the microphone. To quote Dulli himself, "I'm not the man my actions would suggest."

01. "If I Were Going"
02. "Gentlemen"
03. "Be Sweet"
04. "Debonair"
05. "When We Two Parted"
06. "Fountain And Fairfax"
07. "What Jail Is Like"
08. "My Curse" [feat. Marcy Mays]
09. "Now You Know"
10. "I Keep Coming Back"
11. "Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer"

"Gentlemen" [video]

"Debonair" [video]

- BONUS: "Gentlemen" [live at the 1994 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "Debonair" [live at the 1994 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "Fountain And Fairfax" [live in Germany, 1998]
- BONUS: "When We Two Parted" [audio]

I usually like to leave the treasure hunting to each person's discretion, but since there is a distinct lack of video out in the ether...
- The Afghan Whigs on Hype Machine

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