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PAINT IT BLACK: New records from The Afghan Whigs, the Mountain Goats and Mark Lanegan Band

Sub Pop / Artwork by Ramon Rodriguez Melo
Inner-sleeve album art for The Afghan Whigs' new album "In Spades," one of the best albums of 2017.
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ALBUM REVIEWS: (PAINT IT BLACK)

Mark Lanegan Band – Gargoyle (Heavenly) 2017 : 4/5 Rusties

The Afghan Whigs – In Spades (Sub Pop) 2017 5/5 Rusties

The Mountain Goats – Goths (Merge) 2017 4.5/5 Rusties

OKLAHOMA CITY – A month or so ago I wrote a Dust Devil Dreams post titled “I’ve got a cure for your depressed mode” where I note – among other issues of high weirdness and sync – a dream I had involving a much-beloved, 80's-era goth-rock singer from Leeds, England:

I wrote: “I find myself in a 7-Eleven (7/11??) sort of convenience store and everything is that sort of slate white color – and I’m appalled. I say to people around me that this is ridiculous. In fact, I hear myself say: “All white is stupid. In fact, I’m going to turn around and ‘paint it black’ like a Goth kid who listens to The Cure, Depeche Mode and The Sisters of Mercy.” At that moment, I can hear The Sisters of Mercy singer Andrew Eldritch’s voice singing a song called “The Sisters of Mercy,” even though that British band does not have a song of that title or with those lyrics. But in this dreamscape, I could hear the (nonexistent) lyrics quite clearly as Eldritch sang.”

Yes, it was a weird dream. But now, a month later, I sense that a message was being downloaded into my brain – that three albums I would be reviewing, The Mountain Goats’ Goths, The Afghan Whigs’ In Spades and Mark Lanegan Band’s Gargoyle would be spinning out their sounds here in my office, and reflecting the gothy, “paint it black” vibe I was picking up on in that dream.

So, hearing The Mountain Goats’ Goths record, I was stunned that one of the new songs – and among the best on the album – is “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds.” Yes, that Andrew Eldritch, the guy I’m listening to now, as I type this – The Sisters of Mercy’s out-of-print Royal Albert Hall concert film Wake, from 1985.

It’s a fantastic concept album on the part of John Darnielle, the head “Goat” who is accompanied by Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Peter Hughes. When I purchased it, the cashier in the record store told me the only time she ever cried at a concert was at a Mountain Goats show. Glad to hear they'll be in OKC next month!

I never knew Darnielle was a huge fan of my friend, Christian musician Rich Mullins (who died 20 years ago this September and wrote hit songs for Amy Grant) and who might appreciate my use of the title “I’ve got a cure for your depressed mode,” which was a Christian T-shirt merchandiser’s attempt to attract Goth-loving, “lost souls” to Jesus.

Anyway, Darnielle (sans any guitar at all) really gets it right with his Death-Cab-For-Cutie-sesque concept of lives lived and heavy nostalgia for days past hanging in the air.

On "The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement," Darnielle - over Hughes's upright bass - reminds us that while he's "hardcore," he's not as hardcore as some.

"Unicorn Tolerance" has an 80's synth bounce that seems rather tongue-in-cheek, and actually is a solid track on an album filled to the brim with some of the best Mountain Goats material so far.

Case in point: "Abandoned Flesh." Darnielle notes not only The Cure's Robert Smith being "secure at his villa in France" but the lesser-known goth-rock act Gene Loves Jezebel (and the March Violets, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and The Bolshoi, you know, bands no one talks about these days - but are revered by the "hardcore" goth scenesters to this day ...), "now there's two Genes loving Jezebel," after the two key members went their separate ways. There's a feeling of lost opportunity here, but it works so well considering the overall themes of hanging around graveyards, wearing all black and being misunderstood in general.

The whole album embraces that theme of a world that no longer exists the way it once did. Darnielle is adept at capturing those themes, while remaining gothy and on point. I'm reminded of "Damn These Vampires," from 2011's Tarot-inspired All Eternals Deck.

Among them are the Mark Lanegan Band and their new record Gargoyle. It has a mix of post-grunge (Lanegan was originally the frontman for the Seattle grunge band Screaming Trees), some modern sounds and an overall atmospheric moodiness that reflects the overall mood in general, I think it's safe to say.

Why am I not surprised that the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli was involved with Lanegan's Gargoyle project? This material is so up his alley.

As it turns out, the "gothy" and dark themes explored on Goths are also evident on Gargoyle (and In Spades, to a more diabolical degree, noted further down in this review). 

Mark Lanegan Band's new album Gargoyle. (Heavenly)

Lanegan is also in a dark mood on this 10-track record, which begins with "Death's Head Tattoo," where Lanegan's gritty vocal (with Greg Dulli appropriately singing backup) reminds an unseen figure, "Better the devil you know /Than the one that you don't." Sound advice, one followed (or not) by mortals, politicians and musicians alike.

"Nocturne" keeps that mood going, as drummer Jack Irons (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam) keeps a metronomic beat, as he does on, perhaps, the most "sunny" tune on Gargoyle: "Beehive," where Lanegan is singing: ""Bell rung/ And stung / Honey just gets me stoned."

Sounding like a mix of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, "Emperor" has Lanegan singing over a jaunty, goth-rock musical bed (complete with a 60's-esque fuzztone guitar solo): "Why can't I get right? All these demons to enslave me / Who is left to fight? Just the emperor." 

With more than a hit of melancholy and perhaps bittersweet longing, Lanegan includes on Gargoyle "First Day of Winter." In fact, with sad songs like "Sister" and "Goodbye to Beauty," it seems Lanegan is pretty well tuned-in to the times. Uncertain times. Troubled times. And a yearning for better days. And with the final song, "Old Swan," over a synth-drum beat and washes of guitar, Lanegan sounds almost Catholic, with his refernece to "My mother and my queen" and "Praise God, God in everything."

Moving on, there's a diabolical spookiness to The Afghan Whigs' new one, In Spades, a feel I didn't sense on their 2014 outing, Do To The Beast.

In Spades is the new album from The Afghan Whigs. (Sub Pop)

The themes Dulli conveys here are dark and esoteric (and dig that creepy, Edward Gorey-esque album cover art, thanks to artist Ramon Rodriguez Melo!) and the music is equal parts retro and modern, with a mix of Dulli's Twilight Singers influences with original Whigs bassist John Curley still lending a hand as he did on Do To The Beast

The first track by the Cincinnati, Ohio-based band, "Birdland," is emotionally jarring - a build-up to what is to come - and Dulli's soul is right there, exposed to the darkness and light - but a bit more darkness, it would seem.

"So in the haze of feverish lights / The satyr arrives to the throne / We'll come together when the feeling's right ..." 

"Birdland" segues effortlessly into the throbbing dance-rock number "Arabian Heights" where Dulli has been done wrong - again - by unknown people or forces as he sing/screams "Love is a lie / Like a hole in the sky / Then you die." He's been saying this sort of stuff for years.

The most radio-friendly number, a really groovy number called "Demon in Profile" shows Dulli and the band at their musical and lyrical best, complete with a sinister horn section.

"Oriole" has a certain "magickal" vibe about it, while "The Spell" takes things a few steps further, musically and thematically - but both songs being standout tracks on a decidedly solid and focused album.

The snaky bassline and 70's soul guitar and pecussive bombast of "Light As a Feather," with its soul-snatching metaphors makes it clear that Dulli's "Kingdom from the South" is not exactly Dixie, if you catch my meaning. For fans of the older material, it reminded a little of the track "66," from the band's 1998 release 1965, although not nearly as sunny as that song.

And then there's the gritty guitar menace of "Copernicus," propelled by Patrick Keeler's confident drumming and the sonic soundscapes provided by guitarist Dave Rosser and Jon Skibic. This musical bed perfectly match Dulli's longing, heartsick and utterly soulful voice.

The more I listen to In Spades, the more I seem to realize what an amazing and important record it is, coming in at just under 37 minutes, and featuring a total of 10 tracks, recorded in soulful and weird places like Joshua Tree, California, New Orleans and Memphis. Those places come through in the music. And it's on the last song, "Into the Floor," where Dulli oddly ends the song with a Seals & Crofts nod-of-sorts, singing, "And suddenly - a summer breeze ..." Brings to mind "Summer's Kiss," from 1996's Black Love, when Dulli was singing "Demons be gone, away from me." Things have changed. Or have they, Mr. Dulli?

Granted, I'm a fan of the 90's output of Gentlemen and Black Love, but Greg Dulli & Co. have really upped their game with this new material, which are solid companions to the earlier albums I loved.

In Spades ranks as one of my favorite albums in their catalogue and one of the best albums of 2017.

I look forward to seeing them at their Dallas show in a few months.

Overall, the themes of lightness and darkness overlap on these three remarkably good and listenable albums. This is music for our times, no doubt about it. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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