JOE PIXIE IS PISSED. TWO FEET TALL, with a voice like a pubescent munchkin, he has been phoning around local fast-food joints trying to get a job. He never gets one. “It’s because my voice is funny, isn’t it?” he says. “But if you don’t give me a job, I’m gonna crawl up your leg and kick your ass, motherfucker.”
Afghan Whigs are relaxing in a Seattle studio, listening to crank-call cassettes, and Joe Pixie, a Southern gent with a varispeed machine, is the current favorite. “This is what we do in the studio,” says singer and guitarist Greg Dulli. “We sit around listening to tapes of Joe Pixie.” And finishing up Black Love, their latest album, scheduled for a March release.
Six months of work have seen Cincinnati’s favorite sons complete 17 songs representing their most adventurous album yet. ‘Faded’ is the piece de resistance, a nine-minute opus that Dulli insists is the best thing the Whigs have ever done. It’s a dramatic departure even for a band that has made its name bucking indie tradition. Simple, piano heavy and fading out with sleigh bells, the song is the sound of the morning after the exquisite night before. “And we haven’t even put in the sound effects yet,” Dulli says enthusiastically. “Our practice space in Cincinnati has a train yard behind it, and trains braking at night sound like people singing. So we’re going to have train brakes over the end.”
‘Night by Candlelight’ is another mold breaker. As bassist John Curley cues it up, someone asks what the single will be. “Not this,” Curley says. “I can tell you that.” It’s one of several dark ballads on the LP, with an intro reflective of the Cure’s ‘A Reflection’. But only an intro. While Satchel’s Shawn Smith takes over the mike, an orchestra fires up, swamping first voices and then the entire song, “When we recorded the timpani,” Dulli says, “we had them so loud, everyone had to go take a shit when we were done.”
Other highlights are ‘Bulletproof’, a soulful rocker that first turned up on the Whigs’ spring tour, as well as a Tom Waits-like reading of ‘If I Only Had a Heart’, from The Wizard of Oz. “It’s a sexy song,” Dulli says. Then he realizes every eye in the room is upon him. “Well, it is if you’re eating mushrooms.”
Afghan Whigs began writing and recording demos in March. “Then when we toured, we took seven of the songs along just to see what would happen to them,” Dulli says. Now, six months later, the band – Dulli, Curley, guitarist Rick McCollum and new drummer Paul Buchignani – is inside Robert Lang’s Studio, in Seattle. They migrate again in a few weeks for mixing in Memphis, Tenn., but Black Love is already sounding like hipper, flippier Whigs.
The thread through Black Love is the taste for Motown that the Whigs have leaned toward but never had the nerve to explore fully. This time the gloves are off. Dulli is producing, and the result is even more faithful than Uptown Avondale, the Whigs’ soul covers EP of 1992. “It’s because we’re better than we used to be,” Dulli says. “I don’t think everybody improves – some do their best the first time. We had to grow up and learn before we could do something like this.”
© Dave Thompson, Rolling Stone, November 1995