The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen (deluxe reissue)

The Afghan Whigs - Gentleman (deluxe reissue)

The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen (deluxe reissue)

Although the jury is still out for some long-time fans on the merits of The Afghan Whigs’ official comeback album, Do To The Beast, released earlier this year, there is little doubt that the discography of the band’s previous lifespan has been in need of some deluxe reupholstering and reappraisal.  Whilst it might have made more sense to start with a long-overdue reissue of the incredibly rare – and painfully expensive – 1988 debut LP Big Top Halloween or at least with 1992’s mighty coming of age Congregation, 1993’s Gentlemen is certainly not a bad choice, being the group’s most iconic and most discussed album.  The question is though; how does it sound in a 2014 context?

Remarkably fresh, is the relief-filled answer.  Although signed to Sub Pop in the midst of the post-Hüsker Dü grunge-rock awakening in the late-1980s, The Afghan Whigs had adroitly developed a more distinctive line of attack that set apart the Cincinnati quartet from its peers by the time Gentlemen hit the racks.  Having already tackled Motown covers (on 1992’s Uptown Avondale Sub Pop EP) and developed an aversion to plaid shirts, Gentlemen found the band channelling more sophisticated and broader musical influences to create a song-cycle on a particularly torrid romance and its bitter break-up.  Churning over a febrile mix of guilt, obsession, lust, bad love, anger, frustration, despair and psychological torment, Greg Dulli penned a gut-spilling suite of songs with sharp poetic license, forging an alt. rock Blood On The Tracks in the process.

It’s not just the core songwriting that makes Gentlemen stand the test of fashion-fickle time though, as within the spacious production framings the foursome galvanised tightly to give the compositions legs and the muscles to run with them.  Hence, with Dulli summoning his inner-soul man to deliver both his toughest and most tender vocals, guitarist Rick McCollum stretching his chops to incorporate funky thick licks, bassist John Curley adding a fatter low-end and drummer Steve Earle embracing rhythmical diversification, the record possesses both a singular vision and a democratic sense of purpose.

Carefully sequenced to give the right flowing momentum, Gentlemen begins brilliantly with the eerie pared-back scene-setting of “If I Were Going,” the thuggish-funk flexing of the title-track, the prowling self-immolation of “Be Sweet” (with the immortal Dulli couplet, “I got a dick for brain / And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you”), the rubbery bass-driven flagellation of “Debonair” and the momentary reflection of the languid “When We Two Parted.”  After the well-placed mid-point drop in pace, the fire reignites for the nimble if slightly overwrought “Fountain And Fairfax” before kicking into the soaring quiet/loud dynamics of “What Jail Is Like.” The ensuing swoon of the country-soul lament “My Curse” – featuring Scrawl’s Marcy Mays stepping in on lead vocal duties – takes the album even deeper into picking apart Dulli’s fractured affair.  Whilst the subsequent “Now You Know” is perhaps the record’s weakest moment, with Dulli succumbing to somewhat bellicose howling into a grunge gale, the album closes satisfyingly with a weary yet heartfelt reading of Tyrone Davis’ “I Keep Coming Back” and the strung-out piano and string adorned instrumental finale of “Brother Woodrow / Closing Prayer.”

With this new edition of Gentlemen comes 17 extra tracks that bring forth a selection of fan-friendly material for further period detail on this chapter in The Afghan Whigs backstory.  This includes full band demos (including a must-have Dulli-sung incarnation of “My Curse”) that confirm how much crafting went into the final album, a slew of cover song B-sides to further magnify the band’s expanded musical tastes (with a slow-mo take on “Dark End Of The Street” being the highlight) and a clutch of live tracks.  The only galling omission is the stellar acoustic version of “What Jail Is Like,” which cropped up on a contemporary compilation 10” EP in the UK.

Taken altogether, this two-disc reissue (or three if you’re after the full-fat triple-vinyl version), is a fine and thorough history lesson from The Afghan Whigs curriculum.  Here’s hoping that the aforementioned Congregation and 1996’s Black Love are next in the archival queue.

Mute/Blast First (UK/Europe) / Rhino (US)