THE AFGHAN WHIGS Congregation (Sub Pop)

"Congregation" is the third album from Greg Dulli's crew, originally issued early in 1992. Somewhat more splattery than their later work, this dates from a time before The Whigs' trademark fusion of grunge and soul really snapped into focus: there's a great deal of sweat and toil in evidence, but the results often end up imploding compared with the bludgeoning emotional power of later albums such as "Gentlemen" and "Black Love". Essential listening for the converted, though, especially the lurching waltz-time cover version (source unknown) of "The Tower".

THE AFGHAN WHIGS Black Love (Mute)

The Afghan Whigs’ 1993 album "Gentlemen" was their first to give them chart-shaped acclaim and fame, and deservedly too: a heady brew of grunge and soul wrapped around a set of songs documenting the final desperate thrashings of a long-doomed relationship in minute, close to voyeuristic detail. Amazingly, "Black Love" is much, much better; moving away from its predecessor’s harrowingly personal outlook it presents a (hopefully) fictitious tale of mistrust, jealousy, revenge, violence, murder, arson (!) and the darker side of the human psyche.

The opening track, "Crime Scene Part One", pretty much sets the agenda, as singer/songwriter/producer/guitarist/percussionist Greg Dulli hollers "A lie/The truth/Which one should I use?", nailing the album’s recurring theme. "Blame Etc" is as funky as "Saturday Night Fever" up for a bit of GBH, whilst the balladic "Step Into The Light" and "Night By Candlelight" are better Primal Scream songs than Primal Scream could ever fashion, textbook definitions of indie-soul, all achieved without falling back on the old cliché of hanging out (with) your influences. The Whigs have been called a soul band, but since that could mean anything from Michael Bolton to Wet Wet Wet these days it’d be more appropriate to suggest that they take all the passion and commitment of, say, Otis or Aretha at their best, and apply it liberally to their own post-grunge vision of the apocalypse; addictive is too mild a word for it.

Over the course of the last three tracks things really get interesting. Since the rather more theoretical musical delights of "Gentlemen", Greg Dulli has magicked up an ability to fashion proper killer tunes with the sort of tenacious hooklines that grab your brain and rattle it around for days at a time, and the knockout closing trio of "Bulletproof", "Summer’s Kiss" and especially the sweet ’n’ sour tenderness of the eight minute "Faded" are magnificent testament to his songwriting abilities.

"Black Love" is an exhausting but, perhaps perversely, exultant album. In the completeness of its treatment of its subject matter it makes the idea of Nick Cave singing a whole album of songs about killing people look like a bit of a joke. If Cave were to shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die, then Greg Dulli takes you deep into the tortured and twisted psyche of the killer and guides the listener through the minutiae of the cog-turnings that lead up to the act, except in a continuity-shattering flashback kinda way, all clothed in the sort of tunes that Teenage Fanclub would gladly swap their Big Star bootlegs for. Undoubtedly one of 1996’s best.

THE AFGHAN WHIGS 1965 (Columbia)

"1965" is The Afghan Whigs’ sixth album and their first for a major label (in Britain at least) and as a consequence, or perhaps because of the shadowy presence in the booth of Black Crowes producer George Drakoulias, their music seems to have lost much of the darkness and veiled threat that made their last two albums such compulsive listening. This time round Greg Dulli and band just want to party, although the party in question would undoubtedly feature senseless violence, bad drugs and numerous other deviations.

Although they’ve ditched some of the edge-of-terror plot twists that spiked "Gentlemen" and "Black Love" into something great, this new, smoothed-off model has a sleeveful of new tricks to play that prevent proceedings sliding off towards the kind of bloodless Rolling Stones homage "1965" could so easily have become. Greg Dulli’s idea of a love song is one that, like "John The Baptist" here, begins with the whispered lines "Hey…welcome home/I got a little wine/Some Marvin Gaye" and all of a sudden we’re on the Seduction Express with "Let’s Get It On" being piped over the PA. In the album’s bestest track, "The Slide Song" the chorus sweeps in on a barely detectable tempo change, the kind of delicate touch that fully befits any tune that swipes its title from a Spiritualized number. Then there’s the washed-out and wired tale of "Omerta" ("I don’t sleep ‘cuz sleep is the cousin of death"), which slides into the closing New Orleans instrumental hoedown of "The Vampire Lanois".

There are many fine moments here, and even the unremarkable tracks are only that in comparison. If you’ve never heard any Afghan Whigs before, you’ll probably take to "1965" like the proverbial duck to the wet stuff, but if you have fond memories of the band who piledrove through the emotions of their loved ones on "What Jail Is Like" or sent their guitars skywards in pursuit of the lost chord on "Faded" it might sound like something of an anticlimax. Nevertheless, it’s still a cracking album, especially since I’ve just noticed the presence of Alex Chilton in the credits as one of the 22 members of "The Royal Orleans Revue", whoever they may be.

The Twilight Singers