Afghan Whigs — Do To the Beast (Sub Pop)

“The Lottery,” coming around the middle of the first Afghan Whigs album in 16 years, recaps all the highlights of the band’s sound, the dry, coiled drum rhythms, the massive guitar attack, the bleary swagger of Dulli’s voice, the inexorable, way-over-the-top dramatic crescendo.

Since 1965, the focus has shifted perceptibly from sex to death, two key players have exited, and the world has changed. It’s not that Afghan Whigs haven’t been affected. There’s a lush big time hip-hop sheen over many of these tracks, rather than the classic funk and R&B that crept into earlier work (Dulli seems, even, to have been autotuned briefly in first single “Algiers”). And there’s a genuine difference in the guitar sound, once fat and warm and liquid, now louder, brasher and more percussive.

Two decades on from Gentleman, Dulli remains the sexual reprobate, slouching and leering through an anti-PC haze of cigarette smoke. Yet these days, a lot of his lust seems remembered, rather than active and present. Women in “It Kills” and “Royal Cream” have already left the premises, and lyrics about deterioration, remembrance and death impart a sense that Dulli, too, feels he is on the way out. It’s a long way from the sleazy insouciance of “Be Sweet”’s “I got a dick for a brain.”

The sound, too, has shifted subtly, mostly because Rick McCollum, the original guitar player has left, and Dulli has brought in a raft of other collaborators, desert rocker Alain Johannes, Clay Tarver from Chavez and Mark Maguire, to fill the gap.  That’s Tarver slipping past the dark swirling vortex of guitar sound on “Parked Outside” to venture a squall of trebly dissonance. That’s McGuire putting glistening, stylized menace into “The Lottery.” Both add really interesting textures to the songs, but the fetid, organic, slightly-off funkiness of McCollum’s playing is missing.

Do to the Beast was, famously, inspired at a show the Afghan Whigs performed with Usher in 2012, so it is perhaps, not surprising, that the album has a glossy, mainstream R&B overlay. Dulli has long favored large scale production — witness the extended, string-swooning “Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer” that ends Gentleman — but here it comes close to excess. “Matamoros” begins in twitchy funk and swells to mass-vocaled, orchestra-embellished overload. “Algiers” starts in spaghetti-western wryness and blows up into immaculately clean, big rock platitude. Even so, some of the R&B touches work really well. Van Hunt’s vocal pyrotechnics on “It Kills” are baroquely beautiful as anything in 20 Feet from Stardom.

The furor over this first Afghan Whigs album in decades is somewhat puzzling, since it’s not all that different from what Dulli has been doing with Twilight Singers or Gutter Twins or as a solo artist. But if you’re a fan of the Whigs, Do to the Beast will push all the right buttons and even add a few new ones for you to think about.

Jennifer Kelly

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