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25 Years Ago: The Afghan Whigs Get Soulful on ‘Congregation’

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The Afghan Whigs were always outsiders on Sub Pop Records; not just because they were one of the few non-Seattle acts on the grunge-driven outpost, but also because they didn’t draw from the same punk-driven influences as their label mates. Sure, their first for Sub Pop, 1990’s sophomore effort Up in It, veered toward the raucous end of the spectrum, and fit right in line with the rest when it came to non-discerning ears, album number three would prove vastly different. Released Jan. 31, 1992, Congregation had the Cincinnati natives pledging allegiance to Motown instead of metal in what was decidedly more funk than Flipper.

The album cover, featuring a naked black woman holding a white baby, was a heavy-handed indicator of the music inside. A disarmingly moody “Her Against Me” introduces the record, clocking in at less than a minute, with lead vocals credited to a “Miss Ruby Belle” (long rumored to be either Marcy Mays from fellow Ohioans Scrawl or former Pixies/Breeders singer Kim Deal). Then, Congregation kicks off gloriously with “I’m Her Slave,” whose lyrics deal with trading one addiction for another — drugs for a relationship — as frontman Greg Dulli proclaims, “I’m her slave / But I don’t need no chain.”

The jittery strike of Dulli’s rhythm and, more so, Rick McCollum’s Superfly-inflected wah-wah lead guitar would become as recognizable a trait in the Whigs’ canon as the former’s whiskey-and-cigarettes-infused wail. “Conjure Me,” “I’m Her Slave” and the title track are all solid examples, but it’s elsewhere on Congregation when the band really pull away from the pack.

Barely hinted at up to this point in their career, perhaps on “You My Flower” off Up in It, was a full-on embracing of emotion, ’60s and ’70s soul and lyrical honesty. “Let Me Lie to You” is sonically delicate, but full of the sort of thing that would get Dulli accused of having a misogynistic attitude. Lines like “I’ll be kind, kind when I deceive you / You must never question me / Just quietly believe” and “Someone must control you / Before you can get free,” are the sorts of things that would leave followers of bell hooks’ Feminist Theory frothing at the mouth.

Deeper investigation into Congregation though, it becomes obvious that Dulli was often self-flagellating in expositions on his own relationship – and life – shortcomings. The fact that he was less oblique than Kurt Cobain left him more likely to draw ire when delivering “It was all just meat to me” (“This Is My Confession”). But in the end, Dulli is as hard on himself as the ladies, evident in “Turn on the Water” where he’s emphatically laying out instructions on how to be drowned.

Two of the most interesting moments on Congregation come late in the recording. One is a cover of “The Temple,” an Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice composition from Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s faithful to the original but flexes the muscles a bit more, putting a Whigs stamp on it.

“When I was a kid, my babysitter played it all the time,” Dulli told the Village Voice. “I really loved – I used to play ’39 Lashes.’ We used to play ‘Heaven on their Minds.’ We got pretty deep.”

Despite seeming like an odd choice on the surface, “The Temple” had Dulli flagrantly sinning and begging for redemption all within a four-minute span. Taking on covers would soon become a defining characteristic of the band, doing renditions in studio and on the road songs by TLC, Prince, the Spinners and Barry White at the drop of the hat. The next release by the Whigs would be Uptown Avondale, which was all covers except for one song, “Rebirth of the Cool,” which was a remix of Congregation’s hidden track, “Milez Iz Ded.”

Pulling its title from Miles Davis’ recent passing and chorus coming via a friend who told Dulli before they hung up on the phone, “Don’t forget the alcohol,” it became one of the most beloved songs by the group. On Congregation, it added one more element to what was vexing the singer; alcohol, along with women and religion. Those three, along with some new plagues, would come together en masse for the next Whigs’ LP, the breakthrough Gentlemen in 1993.

“We were ready to become something,” Dulli told the A.V. Club in 2012. “The Congregation and Uptown Avondale into Gentlemen evolution was really a bang-bang-bang time in our development. We did all of that in two years. We were kind of on fire during that particular time. It was pretty much a cauldron of creativity.”

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