Greg Dulli sings about some fucked-up shit on the Afghan Whigs’ fourth album and major-label debut, 1993’s Gentlemen, a harrowing song cycle chronicling the death throes of a relationship. But when it came time to record “My Curse”, one of the darkest moments on the album, he didn’t think he had it in him. “I tried to sing it, but it was kinda really impossible for me to do,” he told Loose Lips Sink Ships back in 2005. “It was too close to the bone. Basically I chickened out.” That’s a remarkable thing to contemplate: This is, after all, an album that serves as an emotional exorcism, visceral and violent, played by a band not known for its squeamishness. Rather than tackle the song himself, Dulli enlisted Marcy Mays of the Columbus, Ohio, band Scrawl, and she sings the absolute hell out of it. Her slurred, scrawled vocals are tough-minded and defiant one moment, freshly bruised and broken the next, as she treads the tightrope between temptation and repulsion, between pleasure and pain.
“Curse softly to me, baby, and smother me in your love,” she all but begs, as though she must summon the courage to get each syllable out of her mouth. “Temptation comes not from hell but from above.” It is, to say the least, a powerful moment, but it also fulfills an important narrative function: If Gentlemen documents the demise of a romance, then “My Curse” allows the woman to tell her own side of the story, to call out the posturing in Dulli’s hyper-masculine lyrics, to express explicitly the pain he is inflicting on her. Offering a new perspective on the album’s brutal sexual politics, Mays reveals his outsize persona to be a ruse: a defense mechanism with which he can refract emotions too dark and messy and traumatic to face head on.
Perhaps that’s why the album still sounds so vital and so fresh 21 years on. Removed from the alt-rock boom of the early ’90s, Gentlemen is both personal and unknowable, cocksure yet deeply troubled—in other words, so complicated and contradictory that we’re still trying to untangle its knots. Gentlemen at 21 offers some fresh insights into this song cycle, but fortunately doesn’t remaster or repackage the mystery out of it. The album sounds sharper and a bit more dangerous, those coiled guitars riffs more potent and Steve Earle’s drums wilder and more insistent. And the bonus demos and covers reveal the DNA of the album, signaling not only the rock and R&B sources that inspired Dulli, but also giving some insight into the band’s creative process before they trekked down to Ardent Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis figures prominently on Gentlemen, even if the album opens with the buzz of car wheels on the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in the band’s hometown of Cincinnati. The Afghan Whigs had long been incorporating the sounds and fashions of black soul, funk, and jazz into their buzzy indie rock, which lent previous albums like 1990’s Up in It and 1992’s Congregation a sense of taut rhythmic urgency. The band had previously covered Al Green’s “Beware” and the Elvis hit “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road”, and they chose Tyrone Davis’ “I Keep Coming Back” for Gentlemen, proving their well of influences went much deeper than the usual alt-rock fare. While their contemporaries drew from indie bands like the Raincoats and the Meat Puppets or from classic rock acts like the Who and Neil Young, Dulli was much more interested in Stax and Motown, in Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes.
On later albums, these sources would become much more obvious, but on Gentlemen they are buried in the mix, evident in the strangled riffs on the title track and in the sensual drift of “When We Two Parted”. Drummer Steve Earle is crucial to this balance of styles and sounds, keeping time as tight as the great Al Jackson Jr. but adding the fills and frills of showy rock drummers like Keith Moon. (Sadly, this would be Earle’s final album with the band.) In this regard, the covers included with Gentlemen at 21 prove more substantial than your typical bonus material, not only providing a blueprint for the Afghan Whigs’ sound but also providing a sort of mixtape for the characters involved. It’s not hard to imagine Dulli’s narrator blasting the Ass Ponys’ “Mr. Superlove” for inspiration, or tempting a lover with Dan Penn’s “The Dark End of the Street”, or consoling himself with the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You”.
Over two decades Gentleman has most often been described as a “song cycle,” a term that distinguishes it from a concept album or a narrative album (although both terms are to some degree applicable). If that idea persists, perhaps its due to the word “cycle,” which seems apt: Gentlemen ends more or less where it begins. Scene-setting overture “If I Were Going” opens the album with a slow fade-in finally interrupted by Earle’s stop-start drumbeat, and “Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer” closes the affair with a long, cinematic fade-out, with a dissonant cello echoing the migraine drone of the Roebling Bridge. The sequencing shapes the album beautifully, creating a sense of emotional fatigue while only hinting vaguely at redemption. Thematically, however, that cycle implies a romantic fatalism, as though every relationship is doomed to end painfully.
That’s what makes Gentlemen at 21 such a compelling and necessary reissue, even if the album has never been terribly hard to find. Living with this record, whether for a few weeks or a few decades, only repeats the pattern and makes the songs sound increasingly, almost unbearably desperate. That urgency has not softened over time or even with the addition of bonus material. The early versions of these songs, recorded at Ultrasuede Studio in Cincinnati, show just how little they changed at Ardent, although it’s unclear whether they burst out of Dulli’s brain fully formed or the band sharpened them. Perhaps the most intriguing bonus track is the Ultrasuede version of “My Curse”, with Dulli singing lead. He toys with pitch and meter like a man with more to say than his voice can convey, but he’s more engaged with the material than he sounds on later bootlegs like Time for a Bavarian Death Waltz. In fact, he sounds relatively timid, perhaps even beaten, exhausted, raw, lowdown—as though he no longer possesses the hope or the courage to keep the cycle going. In a way, chickening out may be the boldest thing he ever did.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uyQ0jk