Every decade needs its ambassador of bad juju, the kind of sneering, self-involved superstud who bewitches, bothers and bewilders ordinarily intelligent women (and a smattering of men, no doubt) with his sheer pheromonal aura. Greg Dulli has done a neat job of claiming that role for himself: the frontman of Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs — and, more recently, the Twilight Singers — is possessed of an impressive swagger and one of the more (melo)dramatic voices this side of Jim Morrison. Dulli comports himself like a throwback to a pre-(sexual)-revolutionary era when women were unsuspecting prey just waiting to fall victim to a rod-packin’ romeo.
There’s a surprising amount of subtlety — sophistication, even — rustling beneath the boozy, gutter-rat surface of the quartet’s self-released debut. While Dulli’s desperate, breathless rasp recalls Hootenanny-era Paul Westerberg (as does his uncommon wordsmithery: check out the bittersweet “Here Comes Jesus”), the rest of the Whigs stir ’70s rock — from punk to pomp — into an aural hurricane with one hypnotic eye. An altogether terrific debut.
Typically gauzy Jack Endino production instantly brands Up in It as a Sub Pop issue. While the increased volume follows suit, the Whigs still wax more lyrical than their thrash’n’burn label contemporaries. There’s more implied in the affecting “I Know Your Little Secret” and the disjointed country swing of “Son of the South” than mere sonic overkill, an effect somewhat reflected in the sleeve art’s understated creepiness. (Three tracks from Big Top Halloween are included on the Up in It CD.)
The strangely flamboyant Congregation marks the beginning of Dulli’s metamorphosis from everypunk wallflower to rakish scoundrel with a heart of glass. At various points on the spaciously constructed set, the singer portrays himself as obscure object of desire (“Conjure Me”), subjugate lover (the coy smack anecdote “I’m Her Slave”) and, most convincingly, sexual predator (“Tonight”). The other Whigs do an impressive job of contriving panoramic images through judicious use of wah-wah guitar (Rick McCollum’s contribution to the breathless “Turn on the Water”) and the tribal drumbeats with which Steven Earle invokes an air of ritualistic surrender. The all-covers Uptown Avondale EP reveals a heretofore hidden facet of the band’s art: an ability to delve into classic soul music without sounding patronizing or ironic. Dulli doesn’t miss a vocal trick on bodice-rippers like Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” and — more surprisingly — gives a sensitive, nuanced reading of Dallas Frazier’s “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road.”
There’s no such subtlety on Gentlemen, an album that threatens to give pomposity a good name. The ironically titled (and provocatively art-directed) disc is dauntingly exhaustive in its first-person survey of infidelity and perfidy, making it the first concept album where the protagonist’s survival is kind of a drag. Dulli’s over-the-top emoting — he goes from a whisper to a scream on track after track, most engagingly on “Debonair” and the lasciviously cocky “Be Sweet” — is matched by appropriately imperious arrangements that allow McCollum plenty of room to roam. Just when the ambience gets overly oppressive, the Whigs introduce some fresh air in the form of “My Curse,” a sparse, piano-bar ballad sung by Scrawl’s Marcy Mays. The lengthy What Jail Is Like mini-album offers two versions (one live) of its title track (from Gentlemen), along with several non-LP items, including Dan Penn’s soul standard “The Dark End of the Street” and a live medley of the Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony” and “My World Is Empty Without You.”
That blacker-than-thou attitude led the Whigs (who replaced drummer Earle with Paul Buchignani in 1994) to cover Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” on the soundtrack of Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls, a film in which they essentially serve the same role the Feelies did in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. On Black Love, however, Dulli borders on minstrel show shtick, chewing scenery non-stop through arena-soul ditties like the pimpspeak “Honky’s Ladder” (joined by Prince vocal doppelgänger Doug Falsetti). Thankfully, the ghetto-ese abates on the album’s more somber songs (like the gripping “Blame, Etc.”), which allows the artful subtext of Dulli’s ruminations on betrayal to shine through.
The commercial failure of the ambitious Black Love eased Dulli out of his Elektra deal, but not out of the major label world. Columbia signed the Whigs, with new drummer Michael Horrigan in the lineup, and released 1965, which tried a slightly different approach. The songs are shorter, more upbeat and much poppier. Without 1965 being a sell-out, Dulli’s eyes were clearly on breaking through to the other side, commercially speaking. The album has its merits: the swelling peak of “Neglekted” (“Get you high, girl / Come with me / Take a ride in search of ecstasy”), the accessibility of “66” and “Crazy,” and the familiar rushing urgency of “Uptown Again.” Lyrically, the album hits Dulli’s standard themes of transcendence through excess and the uncertainty of love, but placed in a pop context. As such, the songs resonate with the ’60s soul standards Dulli has covered. (Historectomy is a meet-the-Whigs promo disc of tracks from Congregation, Gentlemen, Black Love and the then-forthcoming 1965.)
That was it for the Whigs. After a brief stint appearing in Hollywood friends’ films, Dulli returned to music with a new band, the Twilight Singers, and a different sound. With production aid by the electro duo Fila Brazilia, the group’s first album, Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers, shows the effects of a mismatched collaboration and a lengthy gestation period. The mellow vibe lends itself to the after-hours groove bin, but the artificial drumbeats and processed sound-effects ultimately lessen the effect of the songs. The song “Black Love,” which did not appear on the album of the same name, was prominently featured in the closing of Ted Demme’s underrated low-budget film Monument Avenue and appears here in a retooled version called “Love.”
Three years, another record label and one aborted album later, Dulli and company roared back to life with Blackberry Belle, a true sequel to the conceptual conceits of Gentlemen. From chronicling the exploits of a lothario with a head full of booze and a heart of stone, Blackberry Belle revisits the same (anti-) protagonist years later, when he must pay the fiddler. From its opening lines (“Black out the windows / It’s party time/ You know how I love stormy weather / So let’s all play suicide”), it’s clear that years of the rock and roll lifestyle have taken their toll. (And not just on Dulli: the album was reportedly written after the cocaine-related death of director Ted Demme.) Grappling with the sins of his past yielded some of the most compelling music of the new decade. The sound veers back towards the Whigs’ signature wail, but tempered with road-weariness and pain. Dulli rouses himself out of oblivion on several tracks (most notably the Who-styled blazer “Teenage Wristband” and the Black Love-sounding “Decatur St.”), but it’s the lyrical focus sorely missing from Twilight that ultimately elevates the album. This is darkness cut with bourbon; Dulli’s grief consumes him completely as he tries to grab on to something to make it through: “Though I am broken I still breathe / Whoever said no wind / No rain / No conversation can bring you back alive?” (“Feathers”). Mark Lanegan does a how-low-can-you-go duet with Dulli on “Number Nine,” which also boasts wordless vocals (think “Great Gig in the Sky”) by Appolonia Kotero (!).
The Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair EP features typically racy artwork, Dulli’s interpretation of the title song, and a stunning B-side, “Domani.” The title track was a preview of the first of a rumored three-album tour of Dulli’s record collection, on which it appears. Typical of covers albums, She Loves You (which does not contain any Beatles songs) is uneven; what works smashingly on a B-side is hard to sustain for a full album, let alone three. He scores highest with his classmates rather than his teachers — Mazzy Star’s “Feeling of Gaze,” Martina Topley-Bird’s “Too Tough to Die,” Björk’s “Hyperballad” — but the overall effect does not stray too far from the source material. The curveball, though, is a too-brief stop on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” which, while recognizable as the original, plays to Dulli’s strengths and comes across with considerable late-night smolder. With his recent productivity, one hopes that Dulli can keep his idiosyncratic take on the last 40-odd years of rock and soul ripe for many years to come.