For the last 40 years or so, ever since some British band called The Beatles came crashing onto American shores, the UK and the US have enjoyed a fine working relationship in the marketing of rock music. When a group achieves popularity in one domain, they are soon paraded throughout the other. Usually, there’s a little bit of a lag time involved, while the trend-watchers on one side of the Atlantic chart sales figures and gaze across the ocean, a fidgety mixture of greed and anticipation on their faces. The wait could last three months, or perhaps a year; it could be decided by a red-hot single, or growing sales over the course of an album or two. But the wait would not last long.
Imagine, then, the frustration of Afterhours, a rock band from perennially under-scouted Italy. Sure, the Italians have a rich cultural history, generally good looks, and one of the sexiest-sounding languages on the planet. But, in the world of European pop music, they lag far behind Sweden, Germany, France, and, well, the list goes on. This poor track record had kept Afterhours hidden away in their own country for the first 17 years of their existence.
Finally, after Ballads for Little Hyenas emerged in the UK late last year, this excellent music will see US distribution through One Little Indian, the hip little label that Björk brought into the public eye. Afterhours’ newfound recognition, however, should be largely credited to Greg Dulli. The former front man for The Afghan Whigs co-produced Ballads for Little Hyenas, and it is no coincidence that Dulli’s current band, The Twilight Singers, are also signed to One Little Indian.
Along with helping out his musical friends, Dulli has also done the wider world a favor by facilitating for many of us our first exposure to Afterhours, Italy’s premier band of dramatic indie rockers. At the center of this group’s musical identity is lead singer Manuel Agnelli, Afterhours’ principle songwriter and powerful vocalist. Backing him up is an equally potent band, with Giorgio Prette behind the drums, Andrea Viti on bass, and Dario Ciffo transporting the music to another plane with his darkly romantic violin playing.
Agnelli himself is a ferocious guitarist, equally adept at laying into hard rockin’ riffs as he is at tearing out post-punk shards of sound. Along with this core line-up, Dulli (him again!) lends the bad yet another hand by sitting in on most tracks, several of which credit him as co-author. Still, while Dulli helped mold much of the material on Ballads for Little Hyenas, there’s little question that it is the band’s intense passion and artistic mind meld which make this album so totally awesome. Brooding but also explosive, Afterhours combine the sweeping, elegiac tones of Tindersticks, the near-metallic roar of The Stooges, and Jeff Buckley’s penchant for heady anthems. Or, try this on: The Cult, but with bouts of depression. One more: Soundgarden, but with brains and beauty (instead of just the brawn).
A member of Italia’s literati, Agnelli’s lyrics are both sumptuous and razor-edged. This is from the album’s quasi-title track, “Ballad for my Little Hyena”: “On your patch of ground / Small hyenas prowl / It is just expedience / That keeps the sun going / Round and round”. These lovely lines are from the cello-grooving “Desire Froze Here”: “Pantomime / Is your tragedy / It’s a thin line between your sorrow / And your cunning”. If you happen to know Italian, you could also pick up the original version of this album, Ballate Per Piccole Iene.
In addition to being in a language those who know English can understand, the US version adds one track not on Ballate, a cover of Lou Reed’s “The Bed”, which was originally a b-side. And so it should have remained. It’s a bit sloppier than the rest of the material on Hyenas, and its faux-cheery tone is out of place on this otherwise gloriously miserable and seethingly defiant album.
I predict that, after buying Ballads for Little Hyenas, your next purchase will be an Italian dictionary. And I’ll be right behind you in the queue. The rest of the world has only just discovered Afterhours, but they’ve been rocking since 1988. Just thinking about that meaty back catalog makes me salivate and cackle like a little hyena.