opinion byMATTHEW M. F. MILLER
With the exception of Twinkies and maybe Hulk Hogan, step away from anything for 18 years and you’d expect it to deteriorate during that time. Especially in music, where the landscape changes daily and fan-ship is particularly fickle, which makes comebacks generally disappointing. Fans want the artist to remain frozen in time, to pick up where he/she/they left off upon departure, but the passage of time rarely does favors for anyone. Comebacks are a bitch on fans and performers alike, and after a beloved artist has returned we tend to walk away wishing and hoping for something that no longer exists, for something that can’t be recreated.
Pretty much every 90s indie lover has gotten himself worked up into a minor frenzy at the prospect of The Afghan Whigs’ reformation. If anyone can recapture the magic of the 90s, surely it’s a band that has never released a bad album. Surely the geographical challenges that caused the band to disband means there was never any ill-will they’d have to work through in order to make this train chug once. Lead singer Greg Dulli has been super active with his side projects, so it’s not like he’s rusty or anything. Maybe The Afghan Whigs will be more of a restart than a comeback. Maybe this time and this band would be different.
With that baggage unpacked, it brings nobody pleasure to announce that Do to the Beast, the new one from The Afghan Whigs, is indeed a comeback in every sense of the word.
The last time we heard from the Whigs proper was 1998’s stellar, very 90s sounding 1965. Like a phone call from a long lost relative you haven’t heard from in decades, their seventh album Do to the Beast sounds both familiar and confusing. It’s the aural equivalent of watching a retro sitcom (see: The Goldbergs) that perfectly hits all of the obvious notes, and misses out on the nuance completely. Do to the Beast fails to recapture a bygone era because it hinges on the elements the Whigs are best known for and not the little things that elevated them to another level.
Lead track “Parked Outside” has a sexy, 80s rock crunch and swagger, but Dulli’s voice seems to have lost the fragile edginess and raw emotion that powered the band’s best songs (“Gentlemen”, “66”). On too many of the mid-tempo rockers featured here (“Matamoros”, “Lost in the Woods”) the band ends up sounding more like a Kings of Leon cover band that also dabbles in The Afghan Whigs songbook, allowing their R&B indulgences to become unbalanced with their rock roots. And without founding guitarist Rick McCollum’s searing, melodic leadership, could-have-been great songs, such as “The Lottery” and “Royal Cream” start off with hoards of guitar-screeching, alt-revival promise, but they never find a hook or even a way to develop beyond their opening anthemic salvos.
Revenge and redemption are at the heart of many of these tunes, and at it’s best, as on the lovely, out-of-time “Aligers” and the haunting “It Kills” ("now you’re gone and you ain’t coming back"), Do to the Beast screeches with purpose, not just because it’s what Dulli does but because it helps the songs build from acoustic simmers to a boil without excess noise or forced emotion. It still sounds like The Afghan Whigs, but it sounds more like re-workings of b-sides that may have shined in the sun of another decade. C+