Monday, June 12, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #181 - The Afghan Whigs – Congregation (Sub Pop, 1992)

The 1990’s were kind of a magical time for me, in retrospect. I started junior high, high school and college in the 90s. I had my first steady girlfriend, lost my virginity and had my first pregnancy scare, all in the 90s. I started smoking. I started drinking. I started experimenting with drugs. It was a time for new and exciting journeys for me, from one extreme to the other. I literally started the decade not even a teenager yet and turned 21 in 1999, the final year of the 90s. No other decade in the near-40 years that I’ve been alive has had as much of a hand in shaping the person I am today. Interests, people, jobs and events came and went, and the music that I discovered throughout was the most constant and important part of this progression.

I wish I could discuss every band that I discovered in the 90s that eventually became a favorite, but that would make for a much longer piece. However, I do want to talk about one band in particular that influenced me in more ways than I can count. The Afghan Whigs’ 1993 major label debut, Gentlemen, was, besides being my entry point to their music, critical in both my creative and personal life. Simultaneously sexy and misanthropic, the Whigs’ melding of indie rock with R&B and other African-American influences set them apart from most of their contemporaries. The band have remained critical darlings over the years and Gentlemen was the landmark that brought them this notoriety. That said, this article is NOT about Gentlemen.

By the time Gentlemen was released, the Whigs already had three records under their belt. Upon finding this out, I had to investigate. “What kind of sordid past could such a band have had to develop into this amalgam of dark rock & roll and sultry soul?” I thought. The first two albums, while certainly showing signs of future brilliance, were not much more than bratty college rock - think The Replacements minus balls. Their third album (and second for Sub Pop Records), Congregation, is the point when the band began its transformation. Congregation still possesses some of the noisy grit of the early records but adds layers of influences from the band’s members. Chief songwriter Greg Dulli’s affinity for R&B and blues is perhaps most prominent, but also evident is lead guitarist Rick McCollum’s interest in free jazz and world music.

Dulli’s lyrics tend to be unsettling, as he touches on addiction, guilt, intimacy and sexual deviancy interchangeably, sometimes within the same song. He sings of being both predator (as in the record’s first single “Conjure Me,” or the boozy, after-hours-style ballad “Tonight”) and prey (as in the desperate “I’m Her Slave”). Congregation also seems to have a darkly religious theme running throughout the album. “I am your creator, come with me my congregation,” Dulli sings on the title track, delivered from the point of view of a hostile deity (“get up, I’ll smack you back down”). Further tying into this theme is the cover version of “The Temple” from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, of which Dulli was an avid fan. Dulli’s lyrics and voice are perfectly juxtaposed with the rock/soul hybrid of the band. McCollum’s leads are dissonant and jagged in the vein of early Fugazi, but he adds a kind of funk swagger to his playing that recalls the Bar-Kays or Curtis Mayfield’s finest moments. Adding to this atmosphere is the tribal-style drumming of Steve Earle (not that Steve Earle - the Whigs’ regular drummer), who would influence a teenaged me in my own creative pursuits. The band’s influences really come together on the hidden track “Miles Iz Dead,” a last-minute tribute song added to the album when news of Miles Davis’ passing reached Dulli while in the studio.

Congregation was largely recorded in 1991, a time when the Whigs’ label, Sub Pop, was struggling financially. If it weren’t for a certain trio from Aberdeen, Washington releasing their breakthrough album Nevermind and effectively saving the label from bankruptcy, Congregation may never have become a thing. Perhaps this is just me, but the “album-that-almost-wasn’t” aspect of this record adds to the mystique of the Afghan Whigs as well.

I know that many who are familiar with the band are mostly familiar with Gentlemen, or the other latter day major label albums that brought the band to the mainstream. And that is okay, because those records are killer. But this is the record that kick-started that journey for the band. Even Dulli himself says about Congregation that it’s “the record where we came into our own.” It’s the perfect bridge between the raw aggression of their early material and the sexy soulfulness of their later career. Honestly, I could go on and on about the album, and the Afghan Whigs in general. They coaxed me into manhood in a way that no other band did. To have them be one of the most important bands to me during my formative years gives this stepping stone album an extremely special place in my heart. So, no amount of adjective-slinging will capture that magic that is Congregation. In other words, don’t take my word for it. Listen to the record.

-         Jonathan Eagle

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