Afghan Whigs may have more albums behind them than ahead of them but there is absolutely no rust on In Spades.
Afghan Whigs were a band that was always on my radar but never in my crosshairs as I grew up. I knew they were one of those “kings of old school indie” rock that paved the way for the commercial successes of better-known bands without getting any of the deserved recognition. For my part, I always confused them with Mission of Burma- ironically, a band with a similarly slighted pedigree.
Originating in 1986, the Cincinnati-bred band broke up in 2001 only to have recently reformed in 2011. With Afghan Whigs new release, In Spades, I was determined not to let their latest offering pass me by and my Saturday night was all the better for it.
While only containing ten tracks, In Spades may feel an underwhelming offer to some. To those I offer the trite adage: quality over quantity. This was surely a case of drowning your babies as the Afghan Whigs curated an amazing album that is balanced throughout without ever just going through the motions.
Giving In Spades a proper opening, “Birdland” starts small. The opener provides tempered bursts of vocals, one line at time, over similarly truncated blips of composition before giving way to an orchestral unfolding that expertly sets up the much more vibrant “Arabian Heights”.
And what a track “Arabian Heights” is! Truly an Afghan Whigs thesis class. Everything about the infectious groove that carries the track screams Stone Roses in utterly earnest fashion. Nothing is tongue in cheek here. This is not a nostalgia act or even pretenders to the throne aping what came before them. These are the forerunners returned to clear the decks of disposable pop and overly-precious art-rock distractions. While some could argue that the composition sounds dated in 2017, it is a welcome dating that is richer by far than modern contemporaries could hope to imitate.
Batting clean-up, “Toy Automatic” could be broken down as a dissertation in how to construct fully realized compositions. The aurally rich track never lingers and never gets tripped up over its robust instrumentation. While the vocals are as true to lead singer, Greg Dulli, I couldn’t help but note a striking reminiscence to Chris Cornell’s wondrous bellows. The fleeting similarity is enough to give the track an unintentional melancholy that fits it all the better.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the tracks “Demon in Profile” or “Oriole”, the latter actually being a really compelling listen, but they tend to get lost in the mix and don’t really do any heavy lifting compared to the eight other barnburners on In Spades. The same cannot be said for “Copernicus”, a heavy hitting grunge-tastic road song that almost makes you yearn for the dashboard tape decks of yore. The track is gritty and aggressive enough with vague leading man lyrics, “I know what I know but with the lights down low riding down your street / say what you got to say, pay what you got to pay.” that it could easily be mistaken as the opening sequence for any number of HBO series.
Throughout the album, Dulli throws his voice to so many different pitches and tenors, at times you hear Cornell, the cracking uncertainty of Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, and other times his words carry on the fragile falsettos that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has since perfected (before Yorke just started sleep-moaning through his works).
“The Spell” sees the Whigs step out of their lane, if ever slightly, incorporating more keyboard trickery and bubbly vocals than any of In Spades’s other offerings. The experimentation continues with the piano-driven “I Got Lost” which borrows more than a note or two from the Beatles as the vocal soar in parallel with the persistently plunking keys. As the track gains momentum, layered vocals add to a lush swirling momentum that could just as easily serve as a really compelling single.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of In Spades is just how honest and straightforward the compositions are. Setting lyrics aside, musically, there is little that can be considered the Frankenstein’s monster of some engineer lurking unseen in a sound booth. This is a seasoned band that knows what the hell they are doing and are not bashful about showing us just that. Afghan Whigs may have more albums behind them than ahead of them but there is absolutely no rust on In Spades.