It seems a bit curious that there were loads of quality tribute albums released in the early nineties featuring acts from the Sub Pop roster and their peers dedicated to bands who had influenced their respective career paths, yet now we are one generation on from this, and these artists remain largely without tribute albums of their own, despite their own not inconsiderable influence on many of today’s contemporary artists. Is the music of Nirvana so sacrosanct that nobody dares to have a bit of fun with it? Were the Screaming Trees so unique that their songs remain invulverable to interpretation? Is the fact that Alice in Chains are still lumbering along preventing the people who learned their songs in their garages and basements from paying musical tribute?
Thankfully, this has been in some part redressed thanks to Summerskiss, the website dedicated to all things Greg Dulli, who has painstakingly and lovingly assembled this collection of friends and fans reworking Afghan Whigs songs for a new generation to discover.
The Afghan Whigs were once famously described by Rolling Stone magazine as spending “the bulk of their career on the edge of stardom”. They were part of the initial exciting wave of Sub Pop’s roster and were always that little bit outside of the main gang – partly due to geography (being from Cincinatti, they were the first act signed to SP outside the Pacific Northwest), but more importantly having a musical outlook slightly apart from their labelmates, not afraid to mix influences from outside the usual sphere to give their own sound a more soulful quality. A band not averse to covering other people’s songs with affection, it’s fitting that they are celebrated here on this CD.
The main striking thing about this compilation is that everyone involved in this album has managed so well in taking their chosen song and performing it as if it was their very own – which, given the darkly personal nature of most of the songs’ lyrics, is no mean feat in itself. And this also works well as a career retrospective for the Whigs themselves, with each step of their career represented here by a balanced mix of friends, colleagues, established artists and new bands alike all giving their all to these songs.
It begins with a new band performing an old song – Sweden’s Sounds Like Violence performing Up In It’s Sammy as if their lives depended on it, giving the track and its words an anger and desparation that make a 20-year old song sound as if it were written last month. Elsewhere amongst the gems, Twilight Singers collaborator Joseph Arthur weighs in with a delightful gospel take on Step Into the Light, that provides a heavenly flipside to Mark Lanegan’s infernal Tonight. Chess Club playfully tack on the intro from Going to Town to their eclectic version of When We Two Parted (with Afghan Whigs backing singer Susan Marshall gliding through a brilliantly sultry and nocturnal rendition of the former), London-based The Gin Riots have a punky stab at Be Sweet with an equally punchy runthrough of old favourite Retarded provided by Wussy (and produced by AW bassist John Curley) while Matthew Ryan gives adds his trademark emotionally-charged whisper to The Slide Song and Jeff Klein’s My Jerusalem ensemble give 66 a Motown polish that would have Berry Gordy jumping about if he wasn’t nudging 90 and is probably surrounded by people stopping him from doing that sort of thing anymore.
Even the album’s sleeve art is a lovingly-crafted cover version, with photographer Sam Holden providing a modern facsimile of the Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen packaging, putting the overall work in a position that brings past works into a thoroughly contemporary setting before the disc is even out of its sleeve.
In truth, there’s not a skippable track on this compilation – the combination of great songs and top-notch performances sees to that admirably, and the breadth of songwriting and delivery should match all moods. And special mention should certainly be made of the Summer’s Kiss website itself, whithout whom this record would never have happened – a definite infectious labour of love with results that anyone with even the slightest passing interest in the Afghan Whigs or any of the acts on show here should look into.