In the 1990s, The Afghan Whigs occupied an unusual — even unique — niche. They were as much a grunge band as an R&B group, sounding as comfortable on a playlist or a festival lineup next to Funkadelic as they were alongside Nirvana or Dinosaur Jr. The Cincinnati, Ohio-based group famously — and fantastically — covered TLC’s New Jack Swing hit “Creep,” and closed their career with 1965, an album that, despite its title and 1998 release date, sounded as if it were beamed in from 1978 — the year that saw the release of both Prince’s debut and The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls. Nobody had a name for it, then, but The Afghan Whigs — dark and tormented as they were — were poptimists.
While Greg Dulli’s affection for soul music hit an all-time high in The Twilight Singers, and though The Afghan Whigs performed onstage with Usher at SXSW in 2013, its mostly the darkness and torment — and not the R&B grooves — that make up the bulk of the band’s first album in 16 years, Do To The Beast. After Dulli’s stint with Mark Lanegan in The Gutter Twins in 2008, this doesn’t come across as terribly surprising. As much funk as The Afghan Whigs are capable of bringing, it comes from a sinister place. Even in the moments when their songs seemed fit for the silkiest of bedsheets, only chilling and harsh truths lie beneath those covers. When “we shared a needle a couple of times” is actually the part of the song that comprises nostalgic reflection, then clearly something harrowing is happening at the heart of it.
Do To The Beast is nowhere near as tortured as the band’s masterpiece, 1993’s Gentlemen. But it’s still comfortable in the shadows, and for that matter, kicking up a good bit of noise. The album’s leadoff track, “Parked Outside” sounds almost as if it were plucked from a Queens of the Stone Age album, its deep, heavy riff opening the album with a darkly sexy swagger. And the combination of dark and sexy tells us we’re in the right place; these are the elements that make up The Afghan Whigs when you get right down to it. Ditto standout “Matamoros,” one of the catchiest tunes on the album, punctuated by booming bass, gothic violins and Dulli’s vengeful chorus: “I’ll cut you down/ I’ll stitch you up/ You played with fire with me.”
Lead single “Algiers” offers a shade more subtlety, juxtaposing castanets and acoustic guitar against a “Be My Baby” beat. But the deeper it gets, the more chilling it becomes, Dulli crying “Dream your sins away,” before flipping his lyric just one line later: “Sin your dreams away.” And on the intense closing dirge “These Sticks,” Dulli leaves the listener with one final, haunting verse: “You thought me easy/ You thought me prey/ I’ve come to meet you/ I’ve come to make you pay.” Before he gets there, though, there’s a swell of horns, and a climactic rush of sound that serves to remind the listener of the band that once reinterpreted the Motown logo and covered “When Doves Cry.” That band was mired in darkness as well, and by crawling back into it on Do To The Beast, The Afghan Whigs have come awfully close to recapturing that twisted, turbulent greatness.