SOUNDGARDEN – DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996)

THE AFGHAN WHIGS – UP IN IT (1990)

April 10th, 1990, The Afghan Whigs released their second album, Up In It, on Sub Pop Records. Hailing from Cincinnati, the band signed with Sub Pop Records in 1989. At that time, the label was completely unaware that it would become a conduit for one of the most seismic shifts in rock music culture in a few short years. Such thoughts indeed seemed ludicrous.

By 1989/90, Sub Pop was tentatively casting its net further than just the Pacific Northwest, with the signing of Texan psychobilly trio The Reverend Horton Heat, Denver’s The Fluid, and The Afghan Whigs, among others. The Whigs fit in among Sub Pop’s cast of outsider noise merchants but had many attributes that set them apart. In these heady pre-internet days, geographical location had a bearing on a band’s persona and sound. The Afghan Whigs, an alternative rock band like others on the Sub Pop roster, bled a very different musical hue.

Up In It was recorded and produced by Jack Endino in Seattle in September 1989 and featured Greg Dulli on vocals and guitar, John Curley on bass, Rick McCollum on guitar and drummer Stevie Earle. The album saw the band make a significant leap forward from their 1988 debut, Big Top Halloween. Greg Dulli’s mix of rock, gritty RnB, confessional lyricism and cock sure strut is in its nascent stages but no less potent. There’s an undeniable rush of adrenaline coursing through this album, and it carries all the hallmarks of what would make the Whigs so great in the years to come.

Vital, thrashing guitars clash with frantic drums. Dulli’s dangerously sexy persona and gritty delivery drive the streetwise, hard-edged sounds further toward darkness. Whereas many indigenous Sub-Pop bands sound hewn from the backwoods of rural Washington, The Afghan Whigs are an altogether more urban proposition, swapping the dark country byways for dark city alleyways.

As a songwriter, Greg Dulli was beginning to get in touch with his self-loathing, offering a powerful and sometimes disturbing look into one man’s obsessions. Dulli’s nicotine-laced howl merged a rasping bellow with a soul man’s sense of phrasing. Just as importantly, the band had learned to make the most of their musical muscle; the guitars of Dulli and Rick McCollum and the rhythm section of John Curley and Steve Earle managed to combine bruising power with a remarkable sense of drama and dynamics.

Dulli embodied the spirit of a character from a Raymond Chandler novel: a man in lockstep with the darker side of life who is willing to tell you all its secrets in great cinematic detail. Up In It holds all the clues to show that The Afghan Whigs would develop into one of the great alternative rock bands of the ’90s—and that they did, churning out album after album of untouchable noir-stained guttural rock throughout the decade.

Opening with the razor-sharp guitar hook of “Retarded”, the rhythm section falls in with an insistent drive while Dulli and McCollum’s guitars swirl, drone, stab and feedback, creating an infinitely cool vibe of slacker malaise. Dulli sings, “Television’s gone, and I’m alone with Lucifer, what a drag. Muthafucker lied to you, muthafucker took my head, you’re never alone with your Jones and all you can’t forget.”

“White Trash Party” is a wah-drenched ripper with thrashy punk intensity filtered through a speedball haze of adrenalized funk. Dulli’s larynx shredding howls rip like sandpaper across a scab. “Hated” is prime Whigs; its seedy groove and earworm melodies catch like fishing hooks in butter. Dulli, singing in the first person, embodies the role of a reprehensible deadbeat who proudly announces, “I smoke a pack a day, I hit the pipe sometimes and drink my pay, screw my friends, understand my need to offend.” The nonchalant way Dulli delivers these lines adds an unsettling weight to the character’s despicable nature. Things soon turn dark, “Come home and smack the woman around. Tried to apologize, but she deserved it, that I know. Strangled with her pantyhose.”

Dulli is one of the few artists unflinching in his portrayal of the darker side of the human condition. His exploration of the male psyche throughout the ’90s is unmatched, laying bare all the good, bad and ugly in raw, devastatingly vivid dissertations.

“South Paw” leans hard into the soul, and RnB The Whigs would master on subsequent releases. Replete with hand claps and the familiar blending of greasy rock with Motown funk, the band revel in the vicious cocktail of this musical melting pot. In later years, they would refine this sound, but here, on Up In It, there’s an infectious edge-of-your-seat thrashy punk grit.

“Amphetamines and Coffee” is a cover version of a song by Paul Kopasz of Paul K and The Weathermen. It’s an exhilarating widescreen romp. Greg Dulli talked about first hearing the song in 1986, “John Curley and I walked into JR’s in Cincinnati one night back in 1986 and watched a gaunt and possessed singer/guitarist manhandle a beat-up acoustic guitar with a pickup and an overdrive pedal whilst leading his power trio thru an absolutely incendiary set that had our jaws on the floor.”

“His name was Paul K, and his band was the Weathermen. When they played a song called “Amphetamines and Coffee,” I felt electricity surge through my body. He and the band came back to our apartment, and our peculiar friendship began, which was every bit as incendiary as the show. We took them to Europe with us on the Gentlemen tour, and somewhere after that, it all blew up, and we lost touch.”

Paul K passed away in 2020, after which Dulli recalled an anecdote from their touring days, “I hadn’t seen Paul in over twenty-five years, but I still remember when I came offstage one night, and he asked me what I was going to buy while I was up there. “Say what?” I replied. He just stared at me and said, “You shouldn’t have your wallet popping out of the back of your britches. It looks stupid. I never carried my wallet onstage again.”

The CD version of the album featured a track not released on the vinyl or cassette version called “Hey Cuz.” Meanwhile, the vinyl and cassette versions featured a song called “Now We Can Begin,” which was not on the CD version. Why this decision was made is anyone’s guess; no doubt Sub Pop had valid reasons.

“Hey Cuz” is a gripping song, not too dissimilar in parts to You’re Living All Over Me/Bug era Dinosaur Jr. “Now We Can Begin” is a punkier affair, loose and raw with a lofi intensity. “You My Flower” is an often forgotten Afghan Whigs gem. It is a beautiful song dripping with pathos, regret and seething apathy. The band swings hard, weaving a mournful tapestry for Dulli to spill across, “So what you make me hard. If I were any harder now, I would crack into a million things. Things I didn’t really need, but how I wanted so.” Rick McCollum’s guitar fills are pitch-perfect throughout.

“Son Of The South” staggers with a boozy, drunken revelry. McCollum’s blistering slide guitar work accentuates the woozy feel. The song suddenly finds its bearings, straightening into a gripping jazzy blast. McCollum’s slide guitar work is potent throughout. His bottleneck use continued throughout the ’90s, creating some uniquely memorable hooks. Greg Dulli once proclaimed he was the best slide guitarist since Duane Allman; either way, he’s a largely forgotten great of ’90s alt-rock guitar playing.

The album closes with the stunning “I Know Your Little Secret.” Musically, the song points to the roads the band would take in the coming years. It’s cinematic, dynamic and utterly compelling. Wave after wave of higher and higher emotional peaks thrash toward the listener in an intoxicating, dark thrill ride. Steve Earle’s drumming is crushing as he ratchets the tension before the final crescendo.

While Up In It may fall behind what The Whigs would achieve on subsequent albums, Congregation (1992), Gentlemen (1993), Black Love (1996), and 1965 (1999), the album made it clear The Afghan Whigs had arrived, and they would not be ignored. The band delivered a perfect streak of albums that spanned the decade, with Up In It being the opening salvo.

The Afghan Whigs are a band that rarely, if ever, puts a foot wrong, right up to the present day. They should be celebrated as one of the great surviving bands from an era of rock music that coughed up brilliance at every turn. It’s a testament to the vision of Greg Dulli, John Curley, Rick McCollum, Steve Earle and the rotating cast of gifted musicians that have kept the passion of The Afghan Whigs a light for nearly four decades. The world is a far richer place with them in it.

Essential..!