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Ready to Whig Out?

By Mike Breen · March 7th, 2007 · Spill It
Newly recorded Afghan Whigs songs are less than two months away. I'll write more about my personal feelings about The Whigs and their legacy (and my own experiences with their music) closer to the May 1 release date of the new Unbreakable retrospective from Rhino Records. But, first up, here's a review of the two new songs -- "I'm a Soldier" and "Magazine" -- that appear on the disc.

Unbreakable -- which has some great liner notes from former Cincy musician/current Philly radio champ Dan Reed -- is essentially a band-sanctioned mix tape; if you're a die-hard fan, you almost certainly have every song on the collection (excepting the new ones, of course). Whigs albums have always had a perfect flow, and the track order of this one is in line with that. The songs aren't presented chronologically like many "best of" comps (it starts with 1990's "Retarded," which is followed by "Crazy" from the band's last album in 1998). But, while the sound quality shifts from track to track as the budgets increased and studios got better over the years, there is a surprising cohesiveness to the collection and it gives a strong representation of what the Whigs were all about.

Anyway, here's my take on the new ones:

· "I'm A Soldier"
This is the first single from the album, which will reportedly have an accompanying video. It was recorded in Memphis and L.A. in 2006 and features the core group plus former backup singer Susan Marshall, Greg Dulli's Twilight Singers cohort Mathias Schneeberger on guitar and clavinet and producer/instrumentalist Rick Steff (who has worked with the Twilights, James Blood Ulmer and Todd Snider, to name a few) on organ.

"I'm a Soldier" has a lot of "expected" Whigs characteristics -- that chiming two-string guitar grind; Rick McCollum's slippery slide-guitar curls; dramatic, cinematic song structure; John Curley's jet-plane bass thump; dancey, funky drumming from Michael Horrigan; and a hands-to-the-sky, almost Gospel-y chorus hook sung by Marshall and Dulli (the chorus refrain: "All I need") that matches the churchy organ swells.

It's hardly the best Whigs song ever crafted -- in fact, it's not even the better of the two newbies -- but the shape-shifting outro/coda saves it ("And in a little while/You'll feel stranger/Up in your mind"). The hooks just aren't very strong, and the track seems meandering and unfocused. It might grow on me, but the first several listens have left me feeling a little disappointed.

· "Magazine"
This one was written shortly before the band broke up and shares as much sonically with the Twilight Singers' first album as it does the Whigs' output (perhaps not surprisingly, given that Dulli was well into his "side project" when his old band called it a day in '01). Recorded in Cincinnati and Memphis between 2001 and 2006 -- not continually, of course! -- the song again features Marshall on backup. A surprise guest here is Dana Hamblen, singer/drummer for long-running Indie Pop faves The Fairmount Girls and Culture Queer. Hamblen sings backup and a fantastic, ethereal lead vocal during the song's churning bridge.

"Magazine" captures that "morning after" feel of some of the Whigs' greatest tracks (like Congregation's "Let Me Lie to You" or Black Love's "Faded," which are both included on the retrospective). The more atmospheric song starts with an echoing, locust-like, circular whirl, melotron hums and piano as Dulli sings what sounds like "When you caught my eye/I was blind to all infirmity" in a croony whisper. The laid-back but soulful song builds on what appears to be a mix of programmed and real drums and features streaks of falsetto that stream across the track like falling stars (a la "Faded").

The song starts and stops a lot, like a deep anxiety-ridden sigh. It's a great track that stands up well against the other songs presented here. My only complaint: At 3:20, it feels a little short. Seems the Whigs are still great at leaving fans wanting more.

If I were to "grade" these songs, I'd give "Soldier" a "B-" and "Magazine" a strong "A." That averages to a "B+" for both, which should give Whigs fans good reason to be excited about the new stuff.

For more on this and other local and national music, check CityBeat's blogs at citybeat.wordpress.com.

CONTACT MIKE BREEN: mbreen(at)citybeat.com


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