IN SPADES by Afghan Whigs
Genre: Alternative Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Demon in Profile,” “The Spell,” “Light as a Feather”
I feel like maybe I’m the problem when it comes to Afghan Whigs. At a time when every major record company was looking for the next Nirvana in the underground, Afghan Whigs emerged as one of the most hyped with their tight, groove-oriented rock, rough, yet seductive, vocals, and lyrics full of insights into the dark, savage underbelly of relationships, love, and the male human psyche. Their first two records showed a lot of potential, but it was only under the tutelage of a major label that they cleaned up their muddiness and created their most consistent material in CONGREGATION and GENTLEMEN. Nonetheless, I suspect the Whigs never liked being pigeonholed as another alternative rock band. They added tons of additional instruments and more emphasis on the traces of R&B, soul, and funk that were always in their sound, but really came into the foreground on BLACK LOVE and 1965. Though I admire the band’s love of black music, I have always found these additions to be distractions away from what I always enjoyed about them, and IN SPADES does nothing to remedy the situation.
It reminds me of what happened to Ghost on their sophomore record; with more lavish production and lusher instrumentation, both bands lost their grit and the superb songwriting and songcraft that endeared me to them in the first place. Perhaps I am being close-minded in yearning for their simplest material, and I still think 1965 and BLACK LOVE are decent records in their own right, especially when compared to their newest material. After breaking up in 2001, the band reunited in 2013 and dropped the bland, country-influenced DO TO THE BEAST a year later, and it did nothing to assuage my fears that the Whigs could no longer be my beloved R&B AC/DC. While IN SPADES is certainly an improvement over their first comeback record, it still suffers from the sloppy vocals and production that should have been a thing of the past for them.
Much to his chagrin, Greg Dulli has never been a pretty R&B crooner, but he still brought a velvety gruffness that was both sexy and foreboding. Sadly, his voice has not aged well, especially when compared to long time collaborator Mark Lanegan. He’s no longer the energetic force of personality he once was, and now comes off like a wilting flower. The opener “Birdland” has him mumbling like a child offering a pathetic defense when caught with his hand in the cookie jar, while “Arabian Heights” has him meowing like an adorable kitten, clashing with what is otherwise one of his angrier performances. The worst vocal moment has to come on “Toy Automatic,” where he delves into his baritone and comes off incredibly phony and goofy. It’s not like the production does him many favors here, as he is pushed to the farthest corner of the mix on “Into the Floor” and “I Got Lost.”
Speaking of production, Afghan Whigs has always struggled with balancing their instrumentation, and it’s still a problem for them on IN SPADES, eight albums into their career. The overly distorted rhythm guitar on “Copernicus” swallows everything in the low end. Shrill post-production additions on “The Spell” and “Oriole” ruin otherwise decent swells by overtaking the entire mix. The drum work and percussion is often way higher in the mix than it should be. The awful “squawks” on “Birdland” are the fakest sounding thing the band has ever put together, and the crescendo at about the 1:35 mark is ridiculously front-loaded and one note. Many of the violins sound synthetic even though they probably weren’t, indicating they were touched up so much that they might as well have come from a computer. The guitars don’t have a lot of force or guts behind them, and when they’re played with more gusto, they’re buried beneath everything else, especially on “Arabian Heights.”
Every complaint I have made could be thrown at DO TO THE BEAST as well, but IN SPADES does have overall better highpoints. “Demon in Profile” and “The Spell” bring the same expansive soundscape of 1965 in a concise package that balances its many elements and effectively builds into a chaotic storm, and Greg manages to recapture some of his wildness on the funky “Light as a Feather.” The album never drags its feet either, and even at 36 minutes it felt like a complete experience to me, although ending with two dramatic piano ballads was a strange choice. It’s much moodier and textured than BEAST, and the band’s love of genres beyond rock comes through in a more tasteful and satisfying way.
IN SPADES gives me hope, since the Whigs still have a lot of creative talent behind them, but age has caused some of the band’s earliest flaws to haunt them again, as well as create new ones. The production is the major issue here, unlike BEAST, where the problem was a lack of substance, but the subpar vocals still persist. The songs are here, but they’re frustratingly kneecapped with sour tones, too much post-production work, and muddiness that should have been fixed after the band’s first two albums. It’s an improvement and doesn’t make me wish the band had never gotten back together like the last one did, but it still doesn’t justify its existence as much as it needs to.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend