A Jack of All Spades
Window shopping with music is a great, albeit sometimes lazy way to approach which album to listen to next, and In Spades, the newest project by the Cincinnati alternative rock band The Afghan Whigs, will intrigue shoppers with its album art alone. The cover features a cloaked demonic figure walking through a couple of pyramids, with his right hand hovering in a spell-casting manner. One look at the image quickly brings to mind some grungy metal music — stuff that an angsty teen might blast while tucked away in his room. That said, not much of the album aligns with that. Saying that “Birdland,” the opening track, is indicative of the whole album is both true and false at the same time. Speaking to the sound of that track specifically, no, “Birdland” does not sound like the rest of the album. However, in terms of how different each song is from one another, the opener’s strange instrumentation and overall sound is fairly representative of the rest of the album.
A few songs here and there — “Arabian Heights” and “Toy Automatic,” for example — have a similar drive to them and a late ’90s/early ’00s feel, but the genre varies substantially throughout the rest of the album. Singer Greg Dulli’s vocal tone is noticeably versatile; listening to the first two songs right next to each other, one could easily confuse them as coming from different artists in terms of composition as well as the vocal delivery. Towards the end, Dulli actually does sound like a metal singer.
Variety is definitely a present theme in this album, exhibited in one of numerous ways with how fitting the titles are to the songs themselves. “Demon in Profile” stands out as the most appropriate name for the music it describes, oozing with a mixture of melancholy and anger, sounding quite like the sonic description of a man plagued by an inner demon. “Toy Automatic” does not bring to mind toy-like images, but fits perfectly for a cinematic scene where, after struggling throughout the entire story with a personal challenge (overcoming a death, perhaps), the protagonist finds the courage to move on, discovering the happiness that so long evaded him — a fitting follow-up to “Demon in Profile,” and almost an extension of the story. “Oriole” sounds not like the bird its title refers to, but instead closely resembles a fusion of “Arabian Heights” and “Toy Automatic,” offering a very well-done build to the final, hard rock sound. The back-and-forth between the bass and drums in “Copernicus” creates a compelling, heart-pumping groove, topped with the snare on two and the ‘and’ of three (as opposed to the typical two and four). It aligns much more closely with the sound and feel of “Arabian Heights” and “Oriole,” unlike the following track. “The Spell” begins with a groove much lighter and more dance-y than the previous few songs — one that contradicts the power of the guitars and bass. Perhaps the most standout feature of “The Spell” is the Supertramp-influenced keyboard. While an interesting addition to the song, it doesn’t seem to aid in tying the album together. Its ending is reminiscent of an EDM song that tapers off in a semi-robotic way, which is also somewhat puzzling.
The third of the bird-related tracks, “Light as a Feather,” sticks more to the alt-rock vibe, featuring a shaker to accompany the gentle strumming of the rhythm guitar. After the first verse is halfway over, a second, funkier guitar part is added, making this one of the most appealing moments on the album — right up there with the piano intro in “Demon In Profile.” When the verse returns after the chorus, drummer Patrick Keeler adds some cross stick in there, providing the listener an extra treat and giving the song a slightly more Latin feel. While the ending guitar note is a cool powering-down effect, it is inconsistent with the rest of the song and sticks out quite a bit after a second listen.
The intro of “I Got Lost” sounds almost like a Journey song, or even a tune to accompany a commercial for a high-tech innovative product. Interest is spiked exponentially when the keys play a Db major seventh chord partway through the verse. The 3/4 waltz feel (also used in “Birdland”) helps to fully assemble this ballad, one of the most heartfelt tracks of the ten, and much like the rest of the album, the opening gives off a different vibe than that which the song ultimately takes on. It’s as if The Afghan Whigs are trying to puzzle us… Or perhaps, lead us on.
Closing out the album, “Into the Floor” sounds very much like someone sinking, whether it’s into the floor or the ocean or wherever else. It has an ultimate atmosphere to it, placing everything on the line, and realizing that there’s no turning back. The order of the tracks is for the most part just average. While not particularly fitting, placing this song last was definitely the right move. It’s a sonic treat that only those who made their way through the entire album deserve. By the time “Into the Floor” finishes, it takes some brain-racking to remember how the album started (with the rather quirky “Birdland”).
Overall, there are some good tracks on here, all played well and written well, but only the last song truly sticks, and just weakly does so. Is this an album that’ll be played five years from now? No, partially because the varied nature of the songs serves as a weakness and is not a compelling attribute. In some cases, an album filled with unique tracks will result in a musical collage of sorts that garners great interest, but here, the effort seems unfocused. A misuse of versatility? Maybe, but time will tell how this work fairs.