The Afghan Whigs might be described as the "contenders" of 1990s rock. They had some hits in the grunge era, but their style was a little too idiosyncratic for them to rise to the top of the charts when every band with a gritty guitar solo was doing that.
The Whigs still boast a fervent fan base – and six years after their breakup in 2001, a new collection, Unbreakable (A Retrospective 1990-2006) cherry-picks the best from five of their albums and an EP. The Whigs combined an ear for a hook with lyrics that dig in with an ingratiating tingle. They started out on iconic grunge label Sub Pop and later moved to Elektra Records and then Columbia. Despite some terrific songs, they never quite seemed to be in the right place at the right time for mass appeal. You can feel them surfing through styles in this non-chronological collection of 18 tracks, which offers a fine survey of the Whigs at their peak.
God knows the Whigs deserved a big hit more than '90s rockers like Bush or Candlebox – perhaps frontman Greg Dulli's fervent stew of psycho-sexual angst was a bit too fiery for the masses. He's got a knack for marrying jangling power chords with some marvelously blunt, unsentimental lyrics – "She wants love / I still wanna f––k," he croons in "Be Sweet." Dulli comes across as a lovelorn, tortured everyman – but unlike a lot of the flannel-clad depression cases of the era, he had the musical chops to make tunes that were more than grinding self-indulgence.
The two new tracks here, "I'm A Soldier" and the older unreleased song "Magazine," don't quite qualify as essential, but they're nice to have here. The gems are in the tunes that made the Whigs' reputation, though. "Debonair" ascended to the upper reaches of modern rock charts with creepily snarling lines about "Tonight I go to hell / for what I've done to you." There's a willingness to try anything – the molten thrash of "Retarded," the snide, screaming frenzy of "Gentleman," the dreamy reverie of "Let Me Lie To You," the pumped-up horns blaring in "John The Baptist." The band even managed a smart deconstruction of The Supremes in their cover of "Come See About Me."
Dulli's stunning vocals, equal parts hard rock and grittily soulful, anchor the band's sound, while Rick McCollum's fluid guitar lines tear classic riffs into the tunes. The Afghan Whigs excelled at making music that was menacing, mysterious and melodic. They couldn't quite be pegged down – and maybe that's why they never quite "made it."
The die-hards will have heard all this before, but Unbreakable is really aimed at once again trying to break the Whigs to the world at large. If anything, their reputation has grown since the breakup, and Unbreakable is here to show what the fuss was all about – sturdy, hook-filled and strangely subversive rock that deserves a fresh listen.