photo credit for banner image: Brad Searles
Early in 2014, I was patiently awaiting the new Black Keys album; their single “Fever” clearly pointed a band in a new direction, and I was looking forward to Turn Blue.
In the meantime, I needed something new to listen to. I poked around on Spotify, but didn’t find anything interesting to me. I headed over the First Listen on NPR Music.
“After a 16-year-hiatus,” I read, “the Afghan Whigs are back with Do to the Beast.”
Oh, yeah, I’d heard of them. I had never really listened to them, though. Wonder if they are going to be any good after a 16-year-hiatus.*
The opening track kicked down the door to my aural pleasure center, and I was utterly, completely hooked.
Do to the Beast (D2TB) got more listens from me this year than any album on my top 10 list. It’s not an album of singles, for one thing. Almost any other album today, I can pick or choose a song or two, and then move onto another artist. But with Do to the Beast, I have to start at the top and listen all the way through.
The music is driving and virile, haunting, full of dark imagery, vengeful wishes, and regret. Front man Greg Dulli is a charismatic motherfucker. He is not a pretty boy; he doesn’t have a huge vocal range. But he unmistakably knows how to get a listener’s attention. “If time can incinerate what I was to you,” he wails on “Parked Outside”, “Allow me to illustrate how the hand becomes the fuse.”
Like its predecessor Gentlemen — released this year as Gentlemen at 21 — Do to the Beast seems to be about the dissolution of a significant relationship. Unlike Gentlemen, which Dulli fully acknowledges is about an explosive breakup, Do to the Beast is the fuller, more mature reflection on the way things fall apart. There is a third player in this dynamic — “It kills to watch you love another,” Dulli sings on “It Kills.” On “Lost in the Woods”, my favorite on D2TB, he sneers, “Surprise, surprise, I’ll have you know I’ve come to see you die.” Later on the same track, he laments, “Baby, sitting outside in the cold, I can see that you’re not alone. That’s vanity swallowing you.”
The other outstanding track, for me, on D2TB is the no-holds-barred “Matamoros.” Clocking in at a lean 2:43, in the midst of a chugging bass line and swooping guitars, Dulli blows up the scene, hurt and lashing out at a betrayal. “I’m so excited you decided to come over and beg,” he sings, and one can picture him leaning back and lighting up a cigar, enjoying the groveling. “I’m over you.”
The great thing about discovering a band that’s relaunched itself is that there’s a whole backlog of great music to plunge into. Dulli, having disbanded the Whigs in 2001, continued to make music with the Twilight Singers, and with Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees fame, as the Gutter Twins. (Hence my earlier * — this guy never stopped making music.) This iteration of the Afghan Whigs features Dulli and bassist John Curley, the only two original members. Yet the music explores the themes of earlier Afghan Whigs albums, fusing bombastic rock sensibility with swaggering R&B sensuality to talk about love, lust, betrayal, longing, and revenge.
The other great thing about discovering the Afghan Whigs now is getting to see them hit the tour circuit again. I saw them in September, and got to meet the band members after the show (along with about 100 of their biggest fans). This band is known for their stage show, their loyal and obsessed fan base (among which I can now count myself), and for sticking around afterward for meet and greets. And hugs.
Who topped your list musically or artistically in 2014?