[23 January 2008]
When the Athens, Georgia, trio the Whigs recorded their self-released debut album Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip back in 2005, it was completed under the kind of circumstances that seemed appropriate for a couple of financially strapped college students. Utilizing an assortment of eBay-bought equipment (later to be resold) in a vacant, un-air-conditioned fraternity house, the University of Georgia classmen churned out 11 tracks of graveled garage rock heavily influenced by Pavement and The Replacements. It was an album that didn’t bother with the frills of fancy production, but relied on the scrappy punch of their songs’ hooks and the frayed, raspy vocals of singer Parker Gispert.
Mission Control, the band’s sophomore full-length, was bred out of very different circumstances. Once Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip was finished and started making the rounds alongside the band’s tireless touring, it wasn’t long before the Whigs landed themselves on numerous “Artists to Watch” lists. Still unsigned, the Whigs eventually found a home with Dave Matthews’ ATO label, which went on to reissue their album in 2006. Shortly thereafter however, just as artists like the Arctic Monkeys and Band of Horses put out their own debuts, the Whigs endured the departure of a founding member. In December 2006, bassist Hank Sullivant left the band citing personal reasons. While the band’s once promising future was not having what one would consider an optimal start, Gispert and drummer Julian Dorio pressed on with more relentless touring, even making an appearance at Bonnaroo and South by Southwest. When the two remaining members of the band finally did feel comfortable settling down to record again they did so in the climate-controlled spaces of the Hollywood Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles.
Probably the most important thing to note with Mission Control, is that despite the bigger budget and fancier set-up, and despite the loss of their original line-up, the Whigs still managed to make a record that still sounds like three guys hammering away some fundamental rock. With the aide of producer Rob Schnapf (Elliot Smith, Beck) the Whigs unfurl their gritty minimalism without overdubs and unnecessary extras. Instead bringing focus to a fuller volume, as well as to melodic nuances that before just blended with the rest of the band’s arrangements, Mission Control is an album that is undoubtedly confident against the new context that created it.
One of the best tracks is most certainly the opener, “Like a Vibration”. Urgently frantic with its down-strumming fuzz, its greatest feature is Dorio’s drum work. With his alternating thrashes of toms and cymbals feeling like a pumping vessel looking to never find the finish line of a marathon race, Dorio’s blitzing momentum reverberates right through your chest. While Mission Control includes a number of songs that sustain the same kind of sonic ferocity, such as the southern burner “Already Young” (with its middle-finger refrain, “I don’t care what your old man thinks”) and the vocal shredding stomp of “Need You Need You”, the Whigs offer several unassuming departures. “Production City”, for instance is a delectable dance-pop piece that features a prominent rat-a-tat-tat guitar rhythm and prominent bass-line melody. Another interesting divergence is “Sleep Sunshine”, which comes across like some psychedelic, carnival ride, filled with its own kind of cotton candy hallucinations.
Of course, the Whigs are always at their most crowd-pleasing with mid-tempo fare. With his vocal verses reaching the melancholic timbre of Dave Grohl, the snared march “I Never Want to Go Home”, for instance, will wind up being the kind of chorus-concentrated anthem that unites the angst of anyone attending their performances. Others like, “I Got Ideas”, featuring a feel-good fusion of brass horns, simply stand out for the sake of the fun the Whigs were obviously trying to translate from a studio setting.
Clocking in at just 37 minutes, Mission Control may run a little shorter than Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip, but its relative brevity insists any listener to take on multiple plays. Like the band, who have since enlisted the permanent addition of bassist Tim Deaux, the album sounds like something complete, that survived the changes that were necessary to make it. It is also something that will in all likelihood end up being one of the best rock albums of the year.