Although Athens, Georgia club favorites The Whigs have built enough momentum over the last couple years to snag opening slots for trendy, high profile bands like The Killers and Franz Ferdinand, the music of The Whigs actually hearkens back to the glory days of indie rock during the early 1990s, when American indie rock was at is most indomitable and vibrant. They might hail from Athens, the home of R.E.M., Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Drive-By Truckers, but The Whigs’ own version of Southern indie rock, while indebted to early R.E.M., sounds inspired mostly by bands from further north, more specifically, Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Superchunk and Archers of Loaf, with touches of Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill tossed in as well. When performed well, that kind of simple, mega-amplified music can still sound thrilling, and judging by the apparent success of The Whigs’ live shows, and the potency of the live recordings this writer has heard, the robust sounding trio of guitarist/singer Parker Gispert, bassist/guitarist Hank Sullivant, and drummer Julian Dorio are certainly on the right track.
After spending a great deal of time building a fanbase solely via word of mouth, the question that remained was whether or not The Whigs would be able to translate that live sound on record, and after several scrapped recording sessions, their long-awaited self-released debut album Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip manages to adequately do the job. Despite the no-frills production (some might say it’s just a step above demo quality), the band still sounds strong, the guitars up front in the mix, Gispert’s gruff baritone holler sounding both tuneful and primal, the rhythm section sounding especially muscular, best exemplified by such rough-hewn rockers as “Can’t Hear You Coming”, “O.K, Alright”, and “Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip”, all three the mark of a band who knows how to push a crowd’s buttons.
That said, the band brings a remarkable amount of variety and unpredictability to the album, at times showing impressive songwriting skill. “Technology” immediately leaps out, the fuzzed-out charm of its oddball riff leading into a snappy chorus that’s as catchy as it is buoyant. The organ stabs that open “Nothing is Easy” will have many expecting Gispert to start singing about how one is the loneliest number, but before that can happen, the song shifts into a rather majestic little slice of Crazy Horse-inspired Americana. The lovely “Written Invitation” and the upbeat, hook-laden “Violet Furs” are both deserving of comparisons to Paul Westerberg. The languid, meandering “Say Hello” sounds like Broken Social Scene commingling with Son Volt, bolstered by some very effective piano fills, while “All My Banks” brings the album to a lugubrious conclusion, its more minimal, slightly atonal sounding reminiscent of early Pavement, right down to Gispert’s semi-spoken delivery.
The stirring “Half the World Away” forms the album’s centerpiece, and is the best example of the band’s massive potential, and also the album’s main drawback. Beginning as a dreary ballad, chiming guitars quickly give way to a duel between Gispert’s keyboards and Sullivant’s slicing lead fills, as Gispert sings drowsily. Midway through, from out of nowhere, the song takes off into a marvelous coda, Sullivant’s soloing taking the spotlight, sounding equal parts Built to Spill and J. Mascis. The overall effect is excellent, but it still feels a touch restrained, the band seeming to hold back, unwilling to allow the solo to carry on for a minute or two longer. Had the album been produced by someone with the ability to give the sound that much-needed extra punch (Athens mainstay David Barbe immediately springs to mind), then we might have had something quite extraordinary on our hands. In the meantime, while the production on Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip is a touch pedestrian, there are enough enjoyable moments on it that warrants a well-earned recommendation. Once these boys have a good label backing them up, then we just might hear them really kick their music into high gear on record.
Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip can be purchased at athensmusic.net.