It's not easy to embrace Afghan Whigs. For one thing, there's that man's-man image that follows singer/guitarist/slavedriver Greg Dulli -- the cigar-chomping, dick-waving, pool-playing, bourbon-swilling persona that's neither ironic comment nor over-the-top caricature, but exists in some uncomfortably earnest, braggartly place in the middle. "Ladies, let me tell you about myself / I got a dick for a brain" is one way to start a song called "Be Sweet," but not necessarily the one most likely to keep people listening.
Then there are those ever-present soul-music references that Dulli is always making and critics are always repeating. Yes, the Isley Brothers may indeed hail from the Whigs' hometown, Cincinnati, but an address does not a sound make -- as the Whigs' indie apprenticeship on Seattle's grunge-dominated Sub Pop makes clear.
On the other hand, confessional songwriting that isn't either ironic comment or caricature is in short supply these days, and if the Whigs aren't exactly the second coming of the Ohio Players, neither do they share so much as a single power chord with their ex-label-mates in Seattle.
Gentlemen is the band's Elektra debut, and if it's tempting to read it as a long list of Dulli's ugly attitudes toward women, it's also a bad idea to discount the disk's strong points. Dulli's macho dysfunction is infinitely more appealing than the crybaby pout of Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, and the band's swinging take on guitar rock carries more style in the opening licks of "Debonair" than Urge Overkill can pack into a trunk full of UO belt buckles.
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I use those two comparisons because all three bands make it a point to distance themselves from punk and aim straight for the unapologetic heart of arena rock. The Pumpkins arrived first, but when they self-destruct, don't be surprised if the Whigs step into the void.
-- Brad Tyer
Afghan Whigs play at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 21 at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Ave. $10. Call 629-3700 for more info.
* Cindy Lee Berryhill at Goat's Head Soup, Thursday, April 21
*Limpopo at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, Thursday, April 21
*Flaco Jimenez at Rockefeller's, Friday, April 22
*Lonnie Brooks at Billy Blues, Friday, April 22
*Alejandro Escovedo at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, Saturday, April 23
*Paw at Goat's Head Soup, Saturday, April 23
*James Harman at the Satellite Lounge, Wednesday, April 27