Review: The Afghan Whigs – Do to the Beast

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I went into this review having never heard rock band The Afghan Whigs before. It wasn’t like diving into the deep end of the pool for me, Do to the Beast is accessible and confident, but I was surprised to learn afterward that this was their first album since their breakup more than a decade ago; it doesn’t feel awkward like a reunion album often does. All the elements they put forward seem to fall into place, so even when I was underwhelmed by a given track I was convinced they were trying something different, and when a track worked the elements felt like a natural choice.

The song you’re most likely to run into is ‘Algiers’. It’s one of the strongest entries, and also has the greatest chance to be an earworm. It’s a catchy blend, with a bit of Western rock and Latin-style touches to make it feel a touch languid and cool (the Fonzie kind), even brushing up against surfer rock with twanged guitar toward the end. One could do much worse with earworms, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome, even if that were possible.

Few of the songs really roar, but the best tracks are the ones with a good measure of energy; when things slowed down I found I was dwelling on the vocals, which are uneven. Greg Dulli‘s light voice works well in ‘These Sticks’, a dark song which grows in intensity, with vocals matching the near-orchestral crescendo three-quarters in. But ‘The Lottery’, while heartfelt, isn’t as well served by Dulli‘s wavering delivery here despite some interesting instrumental change-ups, and ‘Can Rova’’s gentleness winds up feeling ephemeral, with the quiet vocals buried under its distant hum and dance beat final seconds. Maybe the latter song was a casualty of an improper mix, or a deliberate de-emphasis of the singer, but it feels muddy despite a promising start.

When Dulli uses his unsteady vibrato it’s not always bad. ‘Royal Cream’ is one of the top songs, and it’s served by this lonely voice spilling its steady anger, and is served by the energy of the instrumental declarations. And it’s not his only vocal style, anyway. The stomping opener ‘Parked Outside’ is nice and loud, a roadhouse scream with heavy distortion on guitars and banging drums, with the vocals unbroken and swooping. And there’s ‘Matamoros’, a beat-metal revving engine and another favorite, with a level of distortion to the vocals as well as a surprising, colorful, non-pentatonic string interlude.

Well, I say interlude, but none of the tracks are long. They do what they need to do, try a few new things, and get out. Sometimes you wouldn’t mind them staying a few bars longer, but it makes the tracks you like easier to repeat (‘Matamoros’, ‘Algiers’, and ‘Royal Cream’ were instantly repeatable for me), and the tracks you don’t easier to leave behind. Even one of the one’s I didn’t like, ‘Lost in the Woods’, despite its unfortunate use of piano that vacillated between following the singer too closely and AT-AT style droning, wound up being a bit admirable just for the song’s changes in tone.

What’s remarkable is that so many of these little touches with instruments, style, or lyrics all feel genuine; they’re trying a bunch of interesting, properly proportioned experiments to see what serves the song, not just tossing around gimmicks or throwing out the formula completely. For a band getting back together, despite some lineup changes veteran fans might notice, this shows a lot of certainty and willingness to entertain. I wish a fraction of the bands with a consistent output were so studiously measured.

Words: Strange Bundle

The Afghan Whigs Website. Facebook. Myspace. Twitter. Youtube.

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