In a musical landscape inundated by hit-or-miss comeback albums, The Afghan Whigs provide an all-too-rare example of a group that has produced not one, but two above-average works since reuniting. Considering critics widely panned recent albums by contemporaries The Pixies and Violent Femmes, The Afghan Whigs’ success astonishes at first blush. Upon digging into ‘In Spades,’ though, it becomes apparent that they deserve the praise.
Opening with ‘Birdland,’ which finds vocalist Greg Dulli crooning over string flourishes and backing vocals that reflect electronic influences, ‘In Spades’ reaffirms The Afghan Whigs’ penchant for seamlessly weaving myriad styles into an alternative rock tapestry. The cinematic opener lulls listeners into a false sense of security, as the group shifts gears with standout gem ‘Arabian Heights.’ A rumbling bassline and metallic riffs propel this sultry groove that gently fades as drummer Patrick Keeler’s trip hop rhythms persist. In theory, these choices shouldn’t work for a “grunge” band nearly thirty years into their career. Yet, they pull it off with ease. Unfortunately, ‘Arabian Heights’ represents a peak that ‘In Spades’ fails to reach again.
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Follow-up ‘Demon in Profile’ tears into a funky, truncated guitar solo just forty seconds in, and while the additional horns and keys lend the song a supremely addictive orchestral rock atmosphere, it feels emotionally harried. Although the track admirably tries to maintain the record’s momentum, ‘Toy Automatic’ utterly disrupts the flow. Here, Keeler’s drumming and John Curley’s basslines clash, detracting from an otherwise pleasant Destroyer-esque tune.
From this point, ‘In Spades’ regains some steam, but eventually lapses into a string of tracks that are pleasant to hear, but not earth-shattering in design. Moreover, as several songs end with unnecessarily long fades, a similar conclusion on album-closer ‘Into the Floor’ falls flat as it has little to contrast. Overall, whereas ‘Birdland’ inspires thoughts of grandeur, ‘Into the Floor’ epitomizes the album insofar as it is solid, but mildly unsatisfying.
Ultimately, what The Afghan Whigs lose in overarching narrative, they make up with surprising musical coherency. ‘Oriole’ and ‘I Got Lost’ see the group vaguely touch upon country influences while ‘Light as a Feather’ plays like swamp rock, each track demonstrating The Afghan Whigs’ fearless embrace of eclectic styles, and this inclination towards experimentation is perhaps what sets The Afghan Whigs apart from their contemporaries. Although they may not produce another classic album on the level of ‘Gentleman’ (1993), it would behoove listeners to maintain some perspective. Indeed, how many grunge-era artists are still around, let alone crafting satisfying records in the 2010s?
‘In Spades’ is out now via Sub Pop.