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BOOK REVIEW: "The Afghan Whigs' 'Gentlemen'" by Bob Gendron

Bloomsbury
Bob Gendron's 2008 review of The Afghan Whigs' 1993 album "Gentlemen."
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BOOK REVIEW: The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen / 33 1/3 by Bob Gendron (Bloomsbury) 2008

Music geeks love to go beyond the liner notes (if there are any at all) of their favorite albums, so as to further understand the ideas, motivations and feelings that were involved in the making of said record.

Enter the ongoing Bloomsbury 33 1/3 book series, which are essentially short books about albums. I’ve only read two of the many dozens of 33 1/3 books out there – Bill Janovitz’s (of Buffalo Tom) book about the Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic Exile on Main Street and Joe Pernice’s overview of The Smiths’ 1985 album Meat is Murder.

I’ve glanced at a few others, and at one point considered writing my own (about 10,000 Maniacs’ 1987 album In My Tribe) but it was not until a recent Afghan Whigs show in Dallas where a big time fan asked me if I’d read the 33 1/3 book about the Whigs’ 1993 album Gentlemen, the ballsy, honest alt-rock album that originally turned me on to the Cincinnati, Ohio-based band

I admitted I had not. But I have been on a renewed Afghan Whigs kick of late – I just love their new record In Spades – and reading Gendron’s 100-plus page book about the making of Gentlemen, and it’s legacy, helped remind me why I love that album so much, released way back on October 5, 1993 on Elektra Records.

The cover of The Afghan Whigs' 1993 major-label album Gentlemen. (Elektra Records)

Why? It’s honest. It’s real. It’s a collection of songs sung by a guy, Greg Dulli, who is “suave and debonair,” “magnetic,” “self-assured, “a man’s man” who is “no stranger to arousing passions, inciting opinions, and provoking opinions.”

That’s Greg Dulli for you. And while Dulli sternly chided me for using a camera flash during their before-show soundcheck, I got to talk to him later and he laughed it off. He’s a dynamic mix of emotions and depth, I’ve discovered over the years. I may not know Greg Dulli personally, but listening to an album like Gentlemen, full of self-loathing and “themes of anger, hurt, confrontation, disappointment and contempt,” and themes Dulli is quite comfortable addressing, as he had been in the years leading up to Gentlemen's release.

Gendron, a writer based in Chicago, knows his music - and his Afghan Whigs. He talks to this early incarnation of the band - Dulli, bassist John Curley (who is still with the Whigs), guitarist Rick McCollum and drummer Steve Earle. We learn of their influences - musical and otherwise - gained there in Cincinnati, that city on the Ohio River that was an historical way station between North and South. A lot of crossover. A large African-American community and rural whites from neighboring Appalachia (note King Records) mixed in this city with soul, blues, country and bluegrass influences. All of which, along with rock n' roll, can be found influencing the Afghan Whigs band members and their music, which took on a quality distinctly all of its own.

Dulli's young mother had loved 50's and 60's soul and R&B music (Diana Ross and The Supremes and Stax artists were among Dulli household favorites), which played a big influence on her son, who absorbed everything, including the hillbilly sounds of his Appalachian family members. And while Dulli was raised Catholic, when he was 15 he said he was no longer Catholic, which while breaking his mother's heart, she ultimately accepted. We hear that (ex)-Catholic guilt in Dulli's lyrics, particularly on Gentlemen.

The soul searching going on on Gentlemen had developed on earlier offerings on Sub Pop, the Seattle-based label that primarily focused on Pacific Northwest punk and grunge bands. Sub Pop heard something in the Afghan Whigs early on and helped them get established as they released albums like Up In It and Congregation.

The constant touring, Gendron notes, helped the Whigs establish an "onstage chemistry" that over time allowed the band to "transform into the kind of supremely taut - albeit spontaneously loose - well-oiled machine that Dulli revered about James Brown's old groups." Adds Gendron: "Such mastery only comes from collective experience and playing in front of crowds night after night." 

And while I don't know for sure, I thought Gendron's use of the phrase "in spades" may have played a (subconscious, perhaps) role in providing the name for the Whigs new album, with Gendron noting on page 53 about group dynamics ("aural chemistry") and how the Whigs sound remained true, even after : "Such characteristics are a large part of what makes a group great. And the Whigs had them in spades."

The recording at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee - a notable studio having been the site of recordings ranging from Alex Chilton, with both The Box Tops and Big Star to R.E.M.'s much-loved 1988 album Green and from albums by B.B. King and Isaac Hayes - was just right for the band (despite reccording album opener "If I Were Going" at their Ultrasuede Studio back in Cincinnati, a track that includes the sound of John Curley's Mercedes wagon driving across the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge linking Cincinnati, Ohio and Covington, Kentucky - the ominous hum of rubber rolling over the bridge's metal grates - helps set the tone for Gentlemen).

And the right guy, as it turned out, was engineer Jeff Powell, who took the reins as engineer as lead engineer John Hampton worked on other projects - and the Whigs preferred Powell's style over Hampton's. So things were already coming together as they should. Even the album cover, which caused Elektra labelmate Linda Ronstadt to flip out due to the use of children in a bedroom - a metaphor by photographer Billy Phelps, paying homage to photographer Nan Goldin, for the things children learn early on and carry into adulthood, leading Dulli to tell Ronstadt to take a hike, noting that her 1978 Living in the USA album featured 

Clean, loud, "roaring," Gendron notes that "Dulli wasn't demanding perfectionism; he was after raw emotion. Conflicted, lacerated, claustrophobic, natked, readl, out of control - exactly the sensations Dulli was feeling - is how Gentlemen sounds. There isn't a fake or false move on the album."

The songs tell the story, of course. And Gendron runs through all 11 songs, explaining them, picking them apart. Appreciating each word and each note. 

The title track, the author explains, with its staggered R&B beat and fierce guitar squall, reveal anger and contempt, while "Debonair," the song that got the Whigs the most airplay in early 1994, is described as an "unrelenting and unforgiving song" and one that "begins like a lost Soul Train track - albeit one with aluminum-tinted punk overtones," as it "revolves around a rotating pattern whose altered tempos, well-placed instrumental dropouts, and bass-driven foundations give it an urban edge - a foreboding menace that offsets the merry vibe."

Marcy Mays, a singer with Ohio band Scrawl, sings a solid lead on "My Curse," a song sung from a female perspective (and formerly known as "Ciaphas," sung from Dulli's perspective), with Gendron noting how the spare song, with acoustic guitar and piano "twists and writhes, McCollum's greasy slide mimicking the motions of two bodies rolling underneath the sheets."

And the cover of Tyrone Davis' 1970 B-side "I Keep Coming Back" is Dulli's "tuxedo moment," a song of "sensuality, honesty and love." 

Gendron's exceedingly descriptive adjectives flow like melted butter on hot popcorn as he treats each song like an actual, living thing. It's quite remarkable, really, as you read each line. And then you read the chapter about how Gentlemen didn't quite meet label expectations, not getting the sales and airplay many felt it deserved, with one label functionary throwing up her hands and saying, "it's unbelievable they're not U2." 

But U2, as big as they are and as popular as they are is a band that plays by the rules, for the most part. They're "thinking" rock fans go-to band. Plus U2 is more brain and less body. The Afghan Whigs are more in tune with the roots of rock n' roll - sexuality. Human needs. Life, man! 

Bob Gendron's 33 1/3 book on Gentlemen is a definite keeper. For those unlucky souls who have not listened to this album, or, worse, not listened to the Afghan Whigs, need to do so - pronto! 

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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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