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The Afghan Whigs

Unbreakable (A Retrospective)

(Rhino; US: 5 Jun 2007)

One of the best things about music is that one can always finding something new, even self-proclaimed music hacks who should know everything and anything about all bands. The Afghan Whigs were one of those groups that always seemed to get their just desserts among a few, while never truly getting the icing on the cake. But some people have been a bit late in hearing the message, including some writers who will go unmentioned. Although Greg Dulli has done quite well for himself with his other band The Twilight Singers, he will certainly retain association with his first true pride and joy. And while you won’t see something as gorgeous perhaps as “The Killer” off Blackberry Belle, this collection is still as solid as one would hope.


While there are two new numbers here, most of Unbreakable relies on albums such as Up in It, released in 1990, to drive home the point that Dulli and company, despite the obvious comparisons to Westerberg and his replacements, had plenty of smarts with songs such as the gorgeous rocker “Retarded”, which kicks this album off. A buzz-saw track that has Dulli wailing during the chorus, “Retarded” shows just one side of this multi-faceted outfit. Meanwhile, a more melodic side of The Afghan Whigs comes during “Crazy”, which has a soulful side to it from start to finish, as Dulli sells the song with near perfection and a pinch of orchestral flair. Drummer Steve Earle (no, not that Steve Earle) also lends an important hand throughout this infectious ditty.


Most of these songs challenge the listener—never cookie-cutter, glossy pop songs, but murky, seedy and muddy tunes that are hard to ignore. “Turn on the Water” is a rootsy, New Orleans-like concoction that gels instantly. That soulful vibe is also found during “Debonair”, which occasionally has some epic, U2-leaning flourishes. This leads nicely into the first of two new songs written specifically for Unbreakable. “I’m a Soldier” has a leaner, pop flavoring as Dulli sings about hearing the first shot, while the song morphs into a slightly dance-tinged chorus. In fact, the tune could be renamed “I’m a Soul-dier” without much hassle. Later on, the band weaves more magic with “Magazine”, which has a softer feeling that one expects to bust out at the seams at any moment, and it slowly does just that, creating a groovy hook that listeners can sink their teeth into. The overall space and feel to this track makes one think it could have been a song done by The Twilight Singers at some point. The only down side might be how quickly it fades away.


Another asset to the record is that it’s not an anthology, thus allowing Dulli to create what he has stated in other recent interviews to be a “set list” fans might like to see from The Afghan Whigs. Thus it should come as no surprise that “66” slows things down a hair, yet still works on several levels, as does “Be Sweet”, as Dulli bobs and weaves with the rather graphic lyrical content. What seems to be the dark horse on the album is “Uptown Again”, which begins with a lush arrangement before heading down a dark, winding rock path that the band nails time and again.  Meanwhile, the gravitas fuelling “I’m Her Slave”, taken from the band’s 1991 album Congregation, sounds as fresh and contemporary now as it did back then.


The last quarter of the collection contains probably some of the band’s biggest hits, kicking off with “Gentleman”, a rather quirky tune that starts off with an on-and-off backbeat and never really seems to take off, as Dulli sounds like he’s at times scatting some stream-of-consciousness poem. However, it’s quickly forgotten about with the bombastic “Let Me Lie to You”, and, perhaps the standout track among standout tracks here, “John The Baptist”, as horns chime in during the close, fleshing out this well-rounded nugget. Things are nicely wrapped up with the initially reflective, melancholic “Faded”, prior to Dulli steadying the proverbial rock ship. A perfect way to end an album that showcases a band in its prime.

Rating:

Originally from Cape Breton, MacNeil is currently writing for the Toronto Sun as well as other publications, including All Music Guide, Billboard.com, NME.com, Country Standard Time, Skope Magazine, Chart Magazine, Glide, Ft. Myers Magazine and Celtic Heritage. A graduate of the University of King's College, MacNeil currently resides in Toronto. He has interviewed hundreds of acts ranging from Metallica and AC/DC to Daniel Lanois and Smokey Robinson. MacNeil (modestly referred to as King J to friends), a diehard Philadelphia Flyers fan, has seen the Rolling Stones in a club setting, thereby knowing he will rest in peace at some point down the road. Oh, and he writes for PopMatters.com.


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