The Afghan Whigs – Up In It (Sub Pop album, 1990)

The Afghan Whigs 'Up In It' artwork

sub pop | sp60b | 1990

Released on the seminal Seattle-based Sub Pop in 1990, this was the first Afghan Whigs album proper – the future Blast First band’s ‘real’ first, Big Top Halloween, was released in a limited edition of 2000 in 1988, and three tracks from that debut are included here. Sub Pop’s quest to sign the Whigs caused not inconsiderable consternation among the likes of Mudhoney, arguably Sub Pop’s second most famous band, prompting their leader Mark Arm to start shopping the band around majors. His action was understandable given that Sub Pop were struggling to pay Mudhoney’s royalties, yet they were throwing money at the Whigs to get them to sign – a classic indie faux pas and one that Sub Pop certainly made more than once. In the end, the Whigs signed with Pavitt and Poneman, while Mudhoney defected to Reprise, just after Nirvana – Sub Pop’s most famous band – had signed with Geffen on Sonic Youth‘s advice.

With the exception of the three tracks from Big Top Halloween and the album’s final track, Up In It was produced by Jack Endino, unintentionally Sub Pop’s ‘in house’ producer in much the same way as Steve Albini / Butch Vig at Touch & Go, Martin Hannett with Factory or even Flood / Gareth Jones / Paul ‘PK’ Kendall at Mute, only considerably more prolific – Endino recorded 75 singles, EPs and albums for Sub Pop between 1987 and 1989. Among these was Nirvana’s debut Bleach, but there is little point of reference between Up In It‘s broad-brush rock appeal and Bleach‘s raw tone. Endino pulls off a sequence of recordings that is simultaneously highly polished and frighteningly urgent. It’s generations removed from their later work, and light years away from vocalist, guitarist and perfect front man Greg Dulli‘s later band, The Twilight Singers. The Whigs here comprised John Curley (bass), Rick McCollum (guitar), Greg Dulli (guitar, vocals) and Steve Earle (drums).

Up In It kicks off with the frenetic ‘Retarded’, which is perhaps the closest this album gets to the grunge sound that Sub Pop and Endino were famed for. Discordant guitars – similar to a Thurston Moore / Lee Ranaldo jam – and gritty vocals ensure that the album steps out on the right foot. Wah-wah guitar (and some additional guitar work that sounds dubiously like ‘Eye Of The Tiger’) ushers in ‘White Trash Party’, a swirling hurricane of howled vocals, grinding guitars and urgent cymbal-playing. ‘Hated’ on the other hand is an emotional melodic song that prove the Whigs were capable of producing sentimental music even at this early stage, even if the dueling guitars and turgid bass owe more at this stage to metal than soul.

‘Southpaw’ has an excellent groove and very muscular drumming, approximately a heavy dirge that manages to blend ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, Pixies and even the shrill vocal of Axl Rose, to surprisingly good effect. At under two minutes, ‘Amphetamines And Coffee’ sees the band tearing into a metal-influenced riff with some fretwork that J. Mascis would appreciate and stop-start drumming that would be captivating to watch. ‘Hey Cuz’ has a really clever sound, with Blixa Bargeld-esque spindly guitar cycles and a snare-dominated backbone, all of which breaks down into a very free and unstructured jam during which Dulli frantically crams words and vocal sounds into seemingly the smallest of spaces. With a great, melodic bass line and descending guitar melody (and tightly-controlled feedback), ‘You My Flower’ is another impassioned, powerfully-sensual rock song, finding Greg offering a tender vocal on the verses before growling his way through the chorus. Appropriately, ‘Son Of The South’ is a heavy blues number, which Jon Spencer would presumably be very proud of, and is certainly one of the best songs here; Endino pushes the bass section right up, and Dulli delivers an arch vocal on the verses over little more than the bass and drums before the howling guitars force themselves back in. ‘I Know Your Little Secret’ is nothing short of an emotive masterstroke, where rage is replaced with bitter melancholy.

‘Big Top Halloween’, ‘Sammy’ and ‘In My Town’ are all taken from the Whigs’ self-released debut, and are much rawer cuts, just a shade above demo standard in the production stakes; they do, however prove how honed the band were, even in 1988. The tracks were produced by Wayne Hartman. ‘Big Top Halloween’ is a classic heavy indie track, finding Greg in places providing a genetic link to White Stripes’ Jack White, while the band manage to sound like Dinosaur Jr. and Guns n’ Roses in the same three and a half minutes. Beginning with a melodic, elastic bassline, ‘Sammy’ is a heartfelt, lo-fi track with a killer sing-a-long chorus and lyrics that seem to blend genders at will, also deploying a fine harmonica solo. ‘In My Town’ is a melodic, jangly guitar track not wholly dissimilar to James circa Laid, with a definite folk / country sound. Back to 1989 for closing track ‘I Am The Sticks’ (produced by Paul Mahern), a muscular rocker with some very Rowland S. Howard guitar melodies, over which Dulli supplies a typical tonsil-shredding vocal performance. It’s a mysterious and sonically-adventurous conclusion to a gripping album. Not a dud track here.

First published 2004; re-edited 2015.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence