Recordings

The Afghan Whigs
Black Love
(Elektra)

As far as contrived personas go, Greg Dulli's reputation as an erstwhile soul man isn't particularly newsworthy, or offensive, or even all that surprising. His cultural inputs -- the records he owns, the movies he's seen, the lingo he's learned -- give the music of the Afghan Whigs an outsider's cachet, as well as a gentility that ostensibly separates them from the mewling major-label rock hordes. Dulli realizes that one of the privileges of being a frontman is that he gets to front big time, so he adopts the voices of "fictional" losers who proclaim their sins bluntly and then get to "atone" by letting the music wash over them. "This ain't about regret," he testifies disingenuously on 1993's Gentlemen. "It's where I tell the truth."

Gentlemen succeeds largely because the music merges a swank strut with a drunk stagger, as if one glance over his shoulder at what was gaining on him would be enough to make Dulli fall flat on his face. The fact that the second track of Black Love, the Whigs' sixth release, steals its signature riff from the Tubes' "Talk to You Later" doesn't bode well for the band's current sense of time and place, but the problems run much deeper. Dulli has an impressive facility with irony and iconography, from the album's winking title to the plentiful images of gangstas and macks. "Honky's Ladder" mines slang both old ("baby brother") and new ("I got five up on your dime") to create a sense of timeless paranoia, augmented by guitarist Rick McCollum's modern dissonance.

Listening to Black Love means taking in all these gestures, a process that emphasizes how little they add up to a transcendence Dulli probably felt in the original source material. Dulli's a canny race trader, always trying to maintain his distance, but he can't resist sneaking in everything from programmed beats to clavinets ("Going to Town" has both), as if spreading himself all over the map could help him find his voice.

It's a shame the results are so consistently awkward, because there's a story here that goes beyond mere commercial miscalculation. The shysters at Sub Pop, the band's former label, convincingly lumped the Afghan Whigs in with the Seattle herd, which only obscured the Whigs' Cincinnati origins. When rootless cosmopolitans like Jon Spencer or the Beastie Boys pull the time-honored miscegenation trick, they're both responding to their immediate environment and asserting their authority to shape it. But in smaller cities -- especially in the Midwest -- the music of the local "outsider" isn't put under the same pop cultural magnifying glass, and pervasive segregation makes it even more difficult for the self-appointed white hipster to strike the requisite pose. Dulli's shown how to make this crapshoot work in the past, and, in fact, he's probably too honest for his own good: He finds that the most genuine way to document his characters' empty souls is through empty soul.

-- Greg Milner

Sepultura
Roots
(Roadrunner)

As Brazil's primary (and possibly only) heavy metal export, Sepultura's secondary role as cultural ambassador is as inevitable as it is imposing. Not that the Belo Horizonte-born shredheads have ever attempted to shirk the double duty: To the contrary, singer/guitarist Max Cavalera and company have taken plenty of opportunities to promote a deeper understanding of not only their own culture (through highly politicized lyrics detailing the socio-economic tumult of their homeland) but other ones as well (i.e., their documentation of Indonesian piercing rituals in last year's Third World Chaos video). And, of course, they've also done much to dispel the widely held belief that heavy metal is the sole province of the pale-faced and poodle-haired.

Roots, the band's sixth album, continues along the path of cultural cross-pollination. Part Carnaval, part Day on the Green, part anthropology lesson, Roots finds Sepultura going native, digging into the deep pockets of Brazil's musical heritage to forge a new hybrid, a rain-forest crunch that melds the band's familiar sonic assault -- staccato, heavier-than-lead guitar riffing and Cavalera's larynx-lacerating vocal stylings -- with an array of indigenous South American rhythms.

Left in less capable hands (worst-case scenario: visions of a leather-clad Tito Puente jamming onstage with Glenn Danzig come to mind), it's an idea that easily courts disaster, but, fortified by a host of traditional instruments, the frequent accompaniment of popular Brazilian percussionist Carlinhos Brown, and hearts that by birthright beat to samba time, the band manages to fuse the disparate elements into a seamless, organic whole. On "Attitude," the centuries-old berimbau (a single-stringed instrument on which a cup attached to its bow is pressed against the player's stomach to create tonal variations) coexists peacefully (well, perhaps not peacefully -- this is still Sepultura) with the very modern rumble of the detuned electric guitar. "Ratamahatta," a collaboration between Brown and the band with lyrics rooted in Brazilian slang, pulsates with an energy that could be equally appreciated in the streets of Sao Paulo or the burbs of Anytown, U.S.A.

Roots' biggest stretch by far, though, is "Itsari." Recorded in the Mato Grosso region of the Amazonian jungle with the Xavantes tribe, the track finds Max and co-guitarist Andreas Kisser plying delicate melodies from their acoustics as 50 tribesmen encircle them, stamping their feet and singing a healing ceremony chant. Strange, yes, but the strangest part is that it works. Welcome to the jungle, indeed; this is the real world music.

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