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Also, unlike most of the other bands on Sub Pop, whose canon of influences consists of the MC5 and the Stooges--period--the Whigs draw on a far-broader palette for their sound, particularly such R&B and soul artists as the Isley Brothers, Al Green, Solomon Burke, Smokey Robinson, and Wilson Pickett.
Live, the band often covers the Supremes, Prince, and, lately, TLC, rather than the usual indie-rock fake-bookery of Abba, T. Rex, or some television theme songs. Poneman signed them after hearing a set that included what he recalls as a "blistering" version of Sinead O'Connor's "Mandinka."
The Whigs were the first out-of-state band to be picked up by Seattle's Sub Pop (the Fluid were only licensed), and as such, their signing to the label was one of Sub Pop's defining moments, signifying the start of a much broader evolution. They represented the first shift in the paradigm there--the instant when it became clear the sound that would later be called grunge was not simply a small, community-oriented set of rock-and-roll preferences, but something that existed independently and needed to be nurtured.
Says Poneman now, laughingly, "There was a moment when we thought--jokingly, of course--that we would create the world in the image of Seattle, and that Cincinnati would be our first grunge franchise."
It didn't quite work out that way, of course: Instead, the whole world became a grunge franchise. But the Whigs' 1990 Sub Pop debut Up In It--they put out a previous LP, Big Top Halloween, on their own Ultrasuede label--was the first indication grunge could be created in a vacuum (i.e., Cincinnati) by four isolated 20-year-olds just as potently as if it were manufactured by a whole slew of Mark Arms. The Whigs' Congregation, released in 1991, solidified that notion.
In 1992, after Nirvana had cleared the way for any band with loud guitars to sign to a major label, the Whigs hooked up with Elektra Records. But unlike so many of their peers and colleagues of that era, whose best work was in their early indie years, the Whigs have shown undeniable growth, particularly on the 1993 major debut Gentlemen--a remarkable and haunting album that both explored and expiated some of the violent impulses underlying American life.
Black Love is not a sonic departure from Gentlemen, but it contains a much less bleak vision. Gentlemen was a record about a dysfunctional relationship, and the horror of men at their worst. But Black Love is a record about personal responsibility, about a man who can't decide whether to lie or tell the truth. Over and over again, on "Crime Scene Pt. I" and "Blame, Etc.," Dulli repeats the same question: "A lie...the truth...which one should I use?"
The record also asks if the lie succeeds, whether the person who utters it is then free from its implications. "And of course the answer is, 'No, you're not,'" Dulli says, laughing. "And the whole record is about O.J.!"
"Seriously," he adds, "the whole lie-truth thing came from this sort of 'secret' fixation I went on for a while--what has everybody got to hide, what have I got to hide, what have you got to hide--and the lengths people will go to protect their secrets, however big or small they are. To me, it's the basis of everything. It really, truly is. Wars are started, people are murdered, and it's all to, like, basically get laid.
"That's what I write about. That's what's fascinating to me--about people, and within myself. When you see somebody who appears to be a happy family and you find out they're not--the husband's fucking the lady down the street--everybody's shocked. Well, I'm not shocked.
"But I think I've been pigeonholed a little bit as some kind of angst merchant, and I disagree with that perception of me. It's not that I'm insincere, it's just that I'm probably a bit cynical. And part of that is maybe a shield, and I think this time I let that slip down a little bit. I thought the last LP was vulnerable, but this one is a bit more so."
Poneman points out that although Dulli is often mistaken for the protagonist of his songs, he really is a witness.
"I think of myself as an entertainer," Dulli offers in agreement. "When we go out to play, I'm definitely me, but I'm an amped-up version of me. I'm not a character or anything like that, but I infuse the parts of my personality that are most attuned to being on stage, and I kind of inflate them a little bit. Because when I go to see shows, no matter what it is--opera, or a punk-rock bar, or an R&B club--I want to see that performer, you know? Nail me to them."
Dulli has, himself, nailed a number of people to him (and to the Whigs) over the years. But the Whigs still have a problem because their subject matter is too difficult for mainstream radio. Dulli's lyrics are too complex for teen-agers, and his band's music is too hard and challenging for more grownup listeners.
In this day of narrow-casting--radio formatting aimed specifically at certain demographics--the band's extreme diversity of influences may also harm it. "You know, I remember, in my little town," Dulli recalls, "on the radio in the '70s you would hear Marvin Gaye, you would hear Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Al Green, even Patti Smith.