The Afghan Whigs
"Do to the Beast" is the first new album by The Afghan Whigs in over a decade and a half. Founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1988, the band has long stood out from its peers, with their savage, rapturous blend of hard rock, classic soul, and frontman Greg Dulli's searing obsessions. The new album serves as both a homecoming -- it marks their return to Sub Pop, for whom the Whigs were the first signing from outside the label's Northwest base -- and a glimpse into the future of one of the most acclaimed bands of the past thirty years.
"Do to the Beast" proves an appropriately feral title for one of the most intense, cathartic records of Dulli's entire career -- one that adds fresh twists to The Afghan Whigs canon. On it, one finds the film noir storytelling of "Black Love," the exuberance of "1965," the brutal introspection of "Gentlemen," but rendered with a galvanized musical spirit and rhythmic heft that suggests transcendence and hope amidst the bloodletting. "A lot of records I've done stemmed from epochal experiences in my life -- and this time I've used them all," Dulli says. "These new songs are very visual to me. They come from the neighborhoods of my mind. It's like 'Rashomon,' with the story told from different points of memory."
"Do to the Beast" was created in L.A., New Orleans, Cincinnati, and Joshua Tree -- a virtual map of the band's past and present homes. "The album was named in Cincinnati, which is especially fitting," Dulli notes. "I was recording a beatbox track for the song 'Matamoros,' and my friend Manuel Agnelli (of Italian rock band Afterhours) was in the control room. After I finished, he said it sounded like I was singing 'Do to the beast what you do to the bush.' And I thought, 'Brother, you just named the record.'"
"Do to the Beast" features Dulli and Curley joined by the Whigs' current core players -- guitarists Dave Rosser and Jon Skibic, multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson, and drummer Cully Symington. While original Whigs guitarist Rick McCollum does not appear on the record, a panoply of notable personages from the group's past and present make memorable cameos: soul maverick Van Hunt, Mark McGuire (Emeralds), Usher's musical director Johnny "Natural" Najera, Alain Johannes (Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys), Clay Tarver (Bullet LaVolta, Chavez), Dave Catching (QOTSA, Eagles of Death Metal), Patrick Keeler (Raconteurs, Greenhornes), Ben Daughtrey (Squirrel Bait), Joseph Arthur, and a host of others. For Dulli, these outside collaborators add crucial dimension. "Someone like Alain is a great texturalist," Dulli says. "He and Mark McGuire create these, womblike tapestries and nuances. And Johnny Natural blew our minds when we played with him and Usher at South By Southwest. They were all instructed to play guitar not as guitar, but to create a supernatural sound -- and each one of them ran with that."
Likewise, "It Kills" contrasts its lush Gamble and Huff-style orchestration with Van Hunt unleashing a passionate virtuoso howl -- transforming the song in the process. "We'd brought Van Hunt on tour with the Whigs, and began duetting on his song 'Mean Sleep' together every night.," Dulli notes. "He'd do this scream live that he didn't do on the recording; and I thought to myself, 'Wow, he sounds like Bobby Womack!' When I wrote 'It Kills,' I wanted another voice on it, like a Greek chorus, so I called Van. I said, "Do whatever you like, just try not to use actual words -- and if you can do that Bobby Womack thing, do that, too!"
Indeed, "Do to the Beast" takes The Afghan Whigs to previously uncharted zones. That's clear from the Lennonesque primal screaming announcing album opener "Parked Outside" -- one of the hardest-rocking Whigs songs ever, propelled by a pile-driving riff that would make Malcolm Young envious. First single "Algiers," meanwhile, hotwires a pounding "Be My Baby" drumbeat with spaghetti-western atmospherics. Elsewhere, "Matamoros" -- named after a town in Mexico cursed by a series of Satanic murders -- finds Dulli at his most psychosexually sinister: over its relentless, Zeppelin-meets-disco groove, he coolly threatens to expose "every little crime that you hide."
Such themes of duality, viscera, and love destroyed echo throughout tracks that dynamically flow in and out of each other -- from ambitious revenge fantasy "These Sticks" to album centerpiece "Lost in the Woods." Here, Dulli imagines himself on his deathbed in an especially haunting lyric, set to a swinging melody evoking Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. "That song resonates the most with me," he says. "It reminds me of my childhood; sitting in the back of my parents' Bonneville hearing 'You're My Best Friend' by Queen on AM radio. I played a distorted Wurlitzer at the end to capture that feeling; I did a lot of little personal homages like that throughout this record."
That there's even a new Afghan Whigs release at all comes as something of a surprise, even to its members. After the band initially split in 2001, Dulli went on to considerable notoriety with his bands The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins (the latter an ongoing collaboration with close friend Mark Lanegan). While Whigs songs would pop up occasionally in his sets, Dulli didn't fully engage that material again until a solo acoustic tour in 2010, which Curley joined for a few dates. The Afghan Whigs subsequently reunited for a successful 2012 tour that found them headlining major festivals like Lollapalooza, curating their own All Tomorrow's Parties gathering, and selling out prestigious venues throughout the U.S., Europe, and Southern Hemisphere. But once the tour was over, so, apparently, were the Whigs. "We played a final New Year's Eve show in Cincinnati," Dulli recalls. "And I assumed we were done. We'd completed the cycle."
That wasn't actually the case, however. The Afghan Whigs were unexpectedly brought back into the ring by The Fader, which had arranged for them to play a surprise collaborative set with R&B superstar Usher at 2013's SXSW conference. "That moment crystallized the possibility that we'd record together again," Curley says. "Soon after, Greg began compiling the ideas he'd kept in his pocket that he felt were distinctly Whigs songs."
Reunited anew, The Afghan Whigs will tour worldwide in support of "Do to the Beast" -- kicking off an extensive jaunt with a performance at Coachella 2014 in April. "It feels like a celebration, and the start of something new," Curley says. "Something that's exhilarating and scary at the same time."
The Ballad of Boogie Christ
For every song Joseph Arthur has released in a critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated career that has spanned nine full-length albums and 11 EPs, he’s probably kept three others in the vault for safekeeping. Indeed, Arthur has been known to start working on a new album — or two — while simultaneously trying to finish another.
It was amid this abundance of riches that the Brooklyn-by way of Ohio-native began molding a collection of music under a single narrative thread: The Ballad of Boogie Christ, described by Arthur as “a fictionalized character loosely based on my own journey.”
At first, it was a song here or there, or a set of lyrics with no accompanying music. Then, those songs would get recorded and set aside. They’d get re-recorded and revised. They’d start to make sense in relation to their brothers and sisters, and then they wouldn’t. And pretty soon, more than half-a-decade had flown by and Boogie Christ was no closer to coherency.
“For some reason, I’ve been avoiding finishing this record for a long time,” Arthur says with a laugh. “It’s been an albatross around my neck. I don’t know why, but it has.”
Yet despite its labored birth, The Ballad of Boogie Christ has defied the odds to become another essential cornerstone of Arthur’s robust discography. Encompassing sessions put to tape in upstate New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Arthur’s own Brooklyn studio, the 11-song album showcases the artist’s signature rich storytelling set to a diverse range of rock’n’roll.
“I don’t know that there’s a beginning, middle and end to the story, but there are definitely experiences, situations and perspectives that point in those directions,” says Arthur. “I wanted to let the listener fill in some of the blanks without telling the whole story in a straight-ahead way.”
The album begins with the surprising orchestral pop of “Currency of Love”, on which Arthur unveils a passionate croon unlike any vocal performance he’s ever given. From there, Boogie Christ offers epic affirmations on overcoming addiction (the seven-minute closer “All the Old Heroes”), anthems of open-hearted solidarity (“Wait for Your Lights”, “It’s OK To Be Young/Gone”) and the kinds of slow-burning narratives (“Famous Friends Along the Coast”, “I Used To Know How to Walk on Water” and a reimagined, hymn-like version of his standout, “I Miss the Zoo”) that have won Arthur a legion of fans around the globe.
Songs like “Black Flowers”, “I Used To Know How to Walk on Water” and the title cut were recorded several years ago with help from the Band’s legendary keyboardist Garth Hudson and bassist Catherine Popper (Ryan Adams, Jack White), while newer additions to the track list such as “Currency of Love” and “Saint of Impossible Causes” were crafted in Los Angeles with assistance from Chris Seefried (Fitz & the Tantrums, Lana Del Rey). Among the other guests on Boogie Christ are Ben Harper (Arthur’s bandmate in Fistful of Mercy), session drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner, Joan As Policewoman leader Joan Wasser and composer Paul Cantelon (Oliver Stone’s W., Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell & the Butterfly).
“There are certain moments on the album that are just pop music and sugary,” Arthur says. “I didn’t want it to be this diatribe of heaviness, and it had been like that sometimes. I definitely wanted moments of relief within it, where you just get a good jam.”
At the center of the project is the autobiographical “King of Cleveland,” a classic story song that connects Boogie Christ the character with Arthur the flesh-and-blood artist. On it, the narrator apprentices alongside a big fish in a small pond, “playing blues in the back seats, from biker bars to limousines” — much like Arthur did in his early professional career in Northeast Ohio. Says Arthur, “He’s just starting to live the life he’s imagined, playing roots boogie in the real America — Ohio.”
“I’ve heard David Bowie talk about how Ziggy Stardust and some other records were the beginnings of screenplays that he just never finished,” he says. “I could really see this becoming something deeper and bigger than just an album.
“Chuck Prophet reminded me that there’s always the Great American Novel,” he continues. “And that really stuck in my head about Boogie Christ. That’s what I’ve been wanting to achieve with this album. He encouraged me that it was okay to dream big.”