Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Whigs: Mission Control - Review

31 years ago this Valentine's Day, a group of friends in Athens, Georgia formed a band, musical skills be damned. Though perhaps more about fun than musicianship, the rise of the B-52's to prominence (and radio dominance) was the tip of an Athens music scene iceberg, with the college town subsequently turning out college and indie rock staples at anything but a glacial pace, including Indigo Girls, Widespread Panic, and college-rockers-now-commercial-megagods R.E.M.

Save for a few drips in the bucket, the Athens well has run a bit more dry in the past decade or so. Now, while no one is looking, Athens three-piece The Whigs, who just released their second full-length project, Mission Control, sneak out of Athens. I don't know what the "Athens sound" is, but the Whigs have maintained a wide berth.  Instead, Mission Control comes out like a punchier 'Mats project, often a blistering wall of guitar and vocals that demands "going to 11." There's no Westerberg writing here, mind you, but the record often sounds like a respectful tip-of-the hat to the later, more studio-finessed Replacements.

On this sophomore release of 11 quick and tasty tracks, frontman Parker Gispert moves from rock croon to hoarse wail.  The voice is impressively strong, never double-tracked, and often harmonized to a lovely end. Songs are frequently built around the explosive drumming of Julian Dorio, who thunders from the very opening track, "Like a Vibration," straight into the machine-gun attack of "Production City." In fact, it's the drumming that eventually detonates the radio-friendly steady romp of "Right Hand Over My Heart" into a full garage-rock explosion. 

The writing tries a bit too hard at points, such as in the  forced Beatle-esque opening to "Sleep Sunshine," a song saved only by a weeping lap steel at its close. When the band forgets to be at least a little bit loose, they drift toward every other Fighting Foo trying to get on the radio ("I Never Want to Go Home," "1,000 Wives"), but without the cloying smugness or knowing irony that Dave Grohl now appears unable to move beyond. On "Already Young," the carefree grunge that appears toward the end of Mission Control, the Whigs sound more like that other little band that used Grohl was a part of-- as a drummer.

Sometimes you hear a record that you know is a magnetized taste of a looser, louder live act, and Mission Control is just such a record. After the Strokes-like march and tight bass melodies of "Hot Bed" and the screamer "Need You Need You," it may not matter that your car speakers are destroyed, because you may find yourself driving to the next Whigs' gig to see what this band sounds like live. Upcoming dates with the Drive-By Truckers should yield the exposure that the band, and this record in particular, deserve.

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