On the Afghan Whigs' sixth album, singer Greg Dulli showcases his fascination with hip-hop and R&B by quoting Puff Daddy, Mase, Nas, the Temptations, and Marvin Gaye. It's not that Dulli isn't capable of coming up with his own words -- his twisted-love narratives are among the best of his generation -- he just wants it known that he is well versed in music history. Rather than being lumped in with their fellow post-grungers, the Whigs opted for a New Orleans recording location, an omnipresent horn section, P-Funk keyboards, and female backup singers, moving further away from their Sub Pop roots and closer to the upbeat sensuality of mid-70s Motown, albeit still rooted in Midwestern rock. The impassioned musicianship, accentuated by sexual frustration and lust, adds up to an intense and aching listen.
The record opens with the sound of a match striking and Dulli confessing on "Somethin' Hot" that his desire is so strong that he'll "never walk the same." It's a harbinger of what's ahead; in the past the Whigs have offered paeans to the downside of love, but this is a record about the night before it all goes to shit: about trying to get laid. "Somethin' Hot" builds slowly, adding piano to the mix after the first verse, then female backing vocals, and finally big guitars. Soul's yearning first, then rock's urgency.
On "John the Baptist" Dulli uses Marvin Gaye as mood music to charm a lover before quoting the soul legend ("Let's get it on!"), which sends the band into a funky, wah-wah guitar workout accentuated by a trumpet solo. And it doesn't slow down; the band hangs on for the ride while Dulli hopes to make a love connection. This extended groove underscores the Whigs' right to namecheck soul legends.
This is another ambitious and ecstatic album from a quartet who, sadly, have had trouble capturing the public's attention. As the band notes in 1965's liner notes: "Everyone has their turn, today is yours, tomorrow is mine." Let's hope so.
-- David Simutis
Death of a Minor TV Celebrity
Like many of their Britpop peers, the Candyskins first chased American success well before they were ready for it. Their 1991 debut Space I'm In, and their 1993 followup Fun? each grabbed some positive attention, but the band was still struggling to forge a sound of its own. So as fellow Oxford scenesters Radiohead and Supergrass were taking off here, the Candyskins were heading back to basics. They signed to a U.K. indie label, Ultimate, honed their craft, and released material in Britain and Japan while reshaping themselves.
The Candyskins' Mark (guitar) and Nick Cope (lead vocals/guitar) still don't scare up the kind of fan devotion and scandal-sheet coverage those brawling Gallagher brothers of Oasis do, but their improved songwriting now puts them ahead by a mile in the Beatle-clone wars. Subtle references to the Fab Four, and to the wry craftsmanship of Elvis Costello, permeate the band's third U.S. record, Death of a Minor TV Celebrity, but there's much more in the mood and ambition of the material than straight mimicry.
Together with lead guitarist Nick Burton, the brothers Cope have filled the disc's eleven songs with cunning hooks and sharp observations, detailing lives of the famous, the desperate, and the just-getting-by. From penthouse hopelessness and front-page tragedy, to the wasted hours and fried brain cells of the nine-to-five set, the Candyskins deliver their subjects from obscurity, if not temptation.
The title cut is a hollow but effective melodrama, with dark piano chords and fuzzy guitar lines framing a lonely life in the spotlight. Death is the ultimate "one-man-show" for the faded hero, a burned-out star who had been "willing to go to the ends of the earth to be someone." The depressed romantic in "Loser Friendly" also clings fearfully to her job, but out of survival, not ego. She plays clock-watcher by day and night crawler by dawn, but the song's dreary chill erupts into a thunderous guitar rage just as Cope declares, "The party girl is ready to explode."
"Friday Night, Saturday Morning" is a somber ode to a woman trapped by her choices. "Married too young, no divorces/Watch him blow it all, backing horses," Cope sings sadly, denouncing a too-familiar cycle of poverty, abuse and isolation. There's also a lot of raw, locomotive power wedged between the heart-rending stories, as the band blasts through heavy, dynamic rockers such as "Somewhere Under London" and "It's a Sign." The rhythm section of John Halliday (drums) and Brett Gordon (bass) provides agile support throughout, from the precise canter of "Feed it" to the super-glide sonic groove of "Going Nowhere."
The Candyskins do just about everything well here, and without a lot of distracting Brit brat whining about how much America should adore them.
Love and Rockets
Don't look for anything too profound, gothic, or post-punk from Love and Rockets on their latest effort, Lift, which all-too-closely follows the alterna-elctronica mode of 1994's Hot Trip to Heaven. The thirteen-track release does retain hints of the group's trademark darkness, with ghostly loops and haunting vocals. Unfortunately these brief glimmers aren't enough to elevate Lift much above ambient background music.
The members of Love and Rockets -- guitarist, vocalist, and saxophonist, Daniel Ash; bassist, vocalist, and guitarist David J.; and drummer Kevin Haskins -- have a history of performing in bellweather bands. Their first outfit, Bauhaus (with vocalist Peter Murphy), developed the goth sound with piercing vocals, fuzzy guitar, and a heavy rhythm section. After Bauhaus broke up, the trio fragmented, resurfacing as Love and Rockets in the mid-80s. Their 1985 debut Seventh Dream of a Teenage Heaven, and a 1989 self-titled disc, helped set the pace for alternative, post-punk hipness.
All three members contribute to the high-tech aspects of Lift, toying and tinkering on various electronic instruments. They obviously spent hours in the studio tweaking noises. They still don't manage to create anything very memorable.
The title track, which is found here in two versions, bookending the disc, is a borderline new-age instrumental and the worst song on the album. Lift seems stuck in an electronica-drenched black hole, whirling around and around without progressing.
Oddly enough Lift's two longest songs, "My Drug" and "Deep Deep Down," (eight-plus and nine-plus minutes respectively) are among the platter's least tedious tunes. "My Drug" nicely melds ethereal soundscapes, dance beats, and cacophonous noise. On "Deep Deep Down," David J.'s bass lines help create an ultramodern electro-jazz feel that should quiet even the staunchest musical Luddite.
Overall, Lift needs a lift. Although Love and Rockets generally morph themselves to the forefront of musical styles, this latest effort doesn't advance them or electronic music very far.
-- Larry Boytano