Graded on a Curve: Afghan Whigs,
Up in It, Congregation, “Uptown Avondale”

From humble beginnings, Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs grew into one of 1990s more appealing Alternative success stories. Featuring guitarist Rick McCollum, bassist John Curley, drummer Steve Earle, and vocalist-guitarist-songwriting powerhouse Greg Dulli, they came on strong with 1990’s Up in It and sharpened their sound with ‘92’s Congregation; covers EP “Uptown Avondale” signaled the departure of Sub Pop for the majors. In a sweet turn, all three records are getting vinyl reissues in standard 180gm versions and special Sub Pop “Loser” editions, both available September 8 through the label’s online store and at the Whig’s merch table. The records hit retail shops September 22.

Up in It emerged in 1990 and was an immediate breath of fresh air. A whole lot of loud and heavy stuff was steamrolling toward a point of detonation, but the Afghan Whigs essentially came out of nowhere and infused the template with better than average songwriting right out of the gate. The LP’s best song is its opener, “Retarded” an almost ridiculously catchy hard rocker reinforcing that Dulli and company weren’t just hitched to a trend on the upswing. It’s sort of cut that can get stuck in one’s head for days, as this writer can attest, and reinvestigation has proved this capability undiminished.

Had Up in It been the only record the Whigs released…but wait. They do in fact have a prior record under their belt, 1988’s Big Top Halloween, issued on their own Ultrasuede label in an edition of 1,000 copies, one of which landed in the hands of Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman. Except for three tracks tacked onto the end of the Up in It CD (“Big Top Halloween,” Sammy,” and “In My Town”), nothing from the record has been legitimately reissued. Unbreakable: A Retrospective 1990–2006 chronologically cuts it out of the band’s history.

This is understandable. Although not terrible, Big Top Halloween (notably engineered by Wayne Hartman, who did the same for another Ohioan debut, the “Forever Since Breakfast” EP from Guided by Voices) is somewhat schizophrenic. Initially tapping into a Replacements vibe, across the disc there’re numerous structural nods to hardcore, doses of college jangle, a rather bogue country-ish number (“Life in a Day”), and the earliest nod to R&B-soul in the group’s discography (“But Listen”).

The record’s main strengths are Dulli’s already considerable talent as a frontman and McCollum’s comparable deftness as a lead guitarist. Both qualities only got better on Up in It as the focus productively tightened and the rhythm section raised their game. While not grunge, Afghan Whigs were effectively hard rock, as the gnawing wah-pedal throughout “White Trash Party” makes clear.

But versatile, with “White Trash Party” (and even more so Up in It’s CD-only cut “Hey Cuz”) bringing a sorta amazingly non-toxic funkiness to the equation. Overall however, Up in It is still formative, with “Hated” and “You My Flower” wafting a Dinosaur-like aroma (which isn’t at all a bad thing) and a few spots defaulting to standard hard-rocking (soon to be even more prevalent in the US scene), e.g. the LP-only “Now We Can Begin.”

With Congregation, they came into their own. The set lacks the opening punch of “Retarded,” but they didn’t need it, instead commencing with a short femme-voiced prelude “Her Against Me” and then jumping into the tribal rhythms and gnawing guitar of “I’m Her Slave”; if a few of the cuts from Up in It lingered a bit too long, here Dulli’s expressive range is on full display from inside a tidy three minutes.

But the album’s longer durations are fully realized as the well-integrated R&B-soul-funk aspects help to expand their sound beyond the standard indie/ Alt-rock of the period. The choppy wah-guitar is a main ingredient in both “Turn on the Water” and “Conjure Me,” as it helps the latter to transcend a still extant Dino quality. Even when they stick closer to the indie norm the songs and delivery are substantially a few notches above, e.g. “Kiss the Floor” and the title track; through injections of McCollum’s atypical slide guitar, the latter is elevated to an album highlight.

It’s this ambitiousness that has secured Congregation classic status. McCollum’s slide gives Dulli’s thankfully non-strained soul-belting an extra boost in “This is My Confession” and “Dedicate It,” while “Let Me Lie to You” and “Tonight” bring down the raucousness so better to absorb the singer’s vivid lyrical imagery. But the disc’s standouts remain the snaky “The Temple,” which jams a post-Stones framework with good non-Stonesian ideas, and the intersection of refined instrumentation and emotional spillage that is closing hidden track “Miles Iz Ded.”

That song gets an underwhelming remake-retitling on “Uptown Avondale,” becoming “Rebirth of the Cool” (yes, there is a Davis connection in the track’s backstory), its incessant dance beat smacking of the remixes common during the era, but the EPs four other tracks are spiff ’60s R&B-soul covers, opening with Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold.” It’s coarsened into the band’s by-now recognizable style, and leads into a much cleaner and slower-paced “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” (as previously done by Elvis and Percy Sledge).

“Uptown Avondale” might not be an astounding achievement, but the pleasures of its undisguised R&B-to-rock transference haven’t exactly been common since the ’60s gave way to the hard rock that provided significant bedrock to the Whigs’ sound. Its success relates to a desire to interpret songs rather than mimic long-established moves, with Supremes gem “Come See About Me” unfurling as a gutsy slab of melodic rock. Going to the Al Green well four times would’ve exemplified the motions of a pumped-up dullard; Dulli and company do it once, tackling “Beware” (from Livin’ for You) with restraint.

Sometimes debated as a contractual obligation, to these ears “Uptown Avondale”’s quality renders the discussion moot. Happily, “Rebirth of the Cool” is sequenced last, so that if one tires of its inferiority all that’s required is a lift of the needle.

Up in It
B+

Congregation
A

“Uptown Avondale”
A-

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