Afghan Whigs Have Returned to Murder PBR&B
The xx do a fantastic version of Aaliyah’s 1997 single ‘Hot Like Fire.’ It’s an aching slow jam about delayed sexual gratification, and backed by sparse, echoing guitar and bass that can truly be said to throb, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim sing with hushed anticipation about how great it’ll be to finally get each other’s skinny jeans off.
Released in 2009 as a bonus track on the xx’s excellent self-titled debut album, ‘Hot Like Fire’ smoulders like it should. What seemed at the time like an unlikely cover marked the beginning of a trend in indie rock, and following the London trio’s lead, countless guitar bands on both sides of the Atlantic soon began professing their love for ’90s R&B.
Theirs was a good example to follow. The xx aren’t embarrassed by R&B. They don’t play ‘Fire’ for laughs, like filmmakers often do when they use, say, Barry White's 'Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe' or Marvin Gaye's 'Let's Get It On' to score a goofy love scene. Croft and Sim are completely comfortable with the sensual nature of the song, and yet as brilliant as their rendition is, one key aspect of the original is missing.
Call it carnal bounce -- the sexy groove that, while extremely laid back, ups the ante on Aaliyah’s version. When our girl gets her hands on this guy, producer Timbaland's backing track tells us, their passion will burn L.A. clear to the ground. The xx promise a similar payoff, but they're in less of a rush to get there, and the lack of urgency and aggression lowers the stakes. Croft and Sim are eventually going to have great sex, but when it’s all over, London Bridge won’t have fallen down.
By contrast, consider the Afghan Whigs’ 1996 cover of TLC’s ‘Creep.’ The Cincinnati alt-soul heroes ditch the horns and tamp down the bass -- theirs has none of the satin-sheet sheen of the original -- but they don’t skimp on rhythm. A great lover of vintage soul and funk, as well as also Husker Du and Led Zeppelin, Whig mastermind Greg Dulli comes at ‘Creep’ like he does so many of his best songs: with unabashed sexuality. Whereas the xx opt not to get funky—possibly because they don't want to, and possibly because they don't trust themselves to—Dulli dives in with wah-wah and fuzz bass, and that’s one of the things that makes his band great.
Last month, the Afghan Whigs announced the April 15 release of ‘Do to the Beast,’ their first album in 16 years, and it couldn’t come at a better time. In the five years since the xx dropped ‘Hot Like Fire,’ ’90s R&B has become an essential thread in the indie rock fabric. Concurrently, the music it’s inspired has grown increasingly dreamy and ethereal, suggesting indie’s much maligned last major movement, chillwave, hasn’t quite run its course.
Now that the Whigs are back, there’s hope for a reversal -- the return of a rock-soul hybrid lacking in neither musical nor sexual energy.
This isn’t to say the abstract stuff isn’t good, or that a sea change needs to take the form of a tsunami that washes away the current crop of codeine balladeers. To cite an obvious example, Tom Krell, a.k.a. How to Dress Well, has given the world two terrific LPs -- the ghostly psych-soul classics Jodeci never got around to making -- and while he’s spawned plenty of lesser imitators, trailblazers usually do. Kurt Cobain begat Candlebox and Puddles of Mudd, and everyone still loves 'In Utero.'
It’s also worth noting that the lack of oomph in today’s R&B-indebted indie music—or PBR&B, as some have dubbed it, referencing hipsters’ fondness for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer—is not endemic to white artists. That old argument about black musicians being fundamentally rawer or more in touch with their sexuality is racist and just plain wrongheaded, and it ignores PBR&B stalwarts like Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, a Canadian of Ethiopian descent, not to mention Frank Ocean, one of several new-school soul acts beloved by both the Vibe and Pitchfork crowds.
To reiterate: a lot of today’s chilled-out fever-dream soul is great, and depending on how you and your partner like to get down, it may even help you get your freak on. What’s thrilling about the Afghan Whigs’ return is the prospect of re-experiencing the flip-side. Dulli’s crew swings, but not at the expense of volume or crunch. Albums like ‘Congregation,’ 'Gentlemen' and ‘Black Love’ are rock ‘n’ roll records, first and foremost, but they touch on subjects rare to the genre. Just because Dulli sings about the bedroom and his dick and the various ways in which libido and male pride make dudes to crazy things, it doesn’t mean he needs to dilute his feelings or distance himself from the audience with weird vocal or guitar effects.
In fact, the ugliness found in Dulli’s damaged-loverman lyrics is all the more reason he should come at the listener brazen and cocksure, with his chin up and wang out, just as his favorite singer, Marvin Gaye, always did. Subtlety can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes, you’ve got to let the fire burn.