Album Review

Brian Ahnmark

This one just doesn't satisfy.

If there's a downside to being an undeniably terrific band, it's the burden of expectation increasing exponentially with each successive release.

Especially when your output is damn near perfect two albums in.

Consider Athens, GA trio The Whigs, comprised of guitarist/vocalist Parker Gispert, drummer Julian Dorio, and bassist Tim Deaux. Give Em All A Big Fat Lip was a triumphant and refreshing debut, loaded with homemade Southern charm. Mission Control was even better, sharpening the songwriting chops and capturing the rabid beast that is the Whigs' live persona on tape.

Too bad The Whigs are treading water on Album No. 3. In The Dark feels over-thought and under-executed, the band's goal of making a more sonically adventurous album coming at the expense of song quality.

Part of the problem is too many cooks in the kitchen. The band's initial sessions with Ben Allen (Animal Collective) were deemed unsatisfactory, resulting in additional recording stints in Nashville with Angelo Petraglia (Kings of Leon) and Jay Joyce. Multiple songs, including lead single “Kill Me Carolyne,” were re-recorded. (Label interference, anyone?)

The result – understandably – is an awkward, disjointed affair. It's still loaded with a treasure trove of rock nuggets. But there's an element of discomfort, flip-flopping from snappy iPod-ready numbers to “experimental” noise tracks and unflattering background ambiance that adds no substance to the recipe.

The immediately absent element is dynamics. The Whigs are typically at their best mid-song, blasting out of insta-classic choruses into frenetic guitar/drum duels. The first half of In The Dark is one big tsunami of loud, five potential singles failing to rise above the racket. Opener “Hundred/Million” and follow-up “Black Lotus” are two of the album's stronger tracks, save for the fact that Allen inexplicably buries Deaux's lead bass melodies in the mix. Curious lead single choice “Kill Me Carolyne” grates throughout its speak-sing chorus, reminiscent of The Who's annoying “You Better You Bet.”

“Kill Me Carolyne” also introduces another songwriting snafu for The Whigs: Gispert's apparent attempt to morph into a riff monster. He is a gifted songwriter, but throughout In The Dark, Gispert trades in his melodic sensibility for electric nonsense. “Carolyne,” along with “Someone's Daughter,” are both sullied by tuneless guitar bridge breakdowns; “I Don't Even Care About The One I Love” and “Automatic” similarly lose steam during wandering solos that never build or release.

The most egregious sin on the record is the band's absolute hatchet job on “So Lonely,” an epic song turned mortal. In the months prior to the album's recording sessions, The Whigs performed fiery live versions of “So Lonely” that bore little resemblance to the final product. Bass-led verses erupted into a contagious chorus; a terrific Gispert guitar mini-solo fed into a signature full-band freakout; and Dorio pounded a heartbeat on the snare to deliver the climactic ending.

On record, the song is a full minute shorter. It's as though the band was forced at gunpoint and stopwatch to butcher the song into a panicked, single-friendly blueprint. Gone are the bass lead, Gispert's single great guitar line, Dorio's superb finale, and any semblance of musical dynamics and emotional drama that made the song great. For the first time, it seems as though The Whigs are following someone else's formula instead of their own.

The album's forays into sonic experimentation just feel out of place. “Dying” provides mid-record respite from the blitz of opening noise, but it isn't so much a song as it is a musical shrug of the shoulders – one part, two lyrics, and a bunch of maracas. Feedback squall and jackhammer effects work well on “Hundred/Million” and “In The Dark,” but ultimately the weird aspects of the album just leave the listener yearning for the earnest simplicity of The Whigs' best work.

In The Dark feels like it ends before it has a chance to make an impression. Songs fizzle where they once detonated. That's not to say it's a bad record; it just falls well short of its tantalizing potential. And when you're great, average records don't cut the mustard.

It's as though the band whipped up Fat Lip as an appetizer, catered a feast with main course Mission Control, and then dished out a side salad when we were craving dessert. This one just doesn't satisfy.