on 14 February 2008
Jamie Stewart the bad-ass of avant-garde genre poking mayhem returns with his 7th album as Xiu Xiu. So expect more camp synths, disjointed sounds, warped screeching, and hushed narrative whisperings on top of that solid backbone of catchy as hell pop tunes.
The opening track sounds positively cheerful, surely Mr. Stewart isn't feeling happy-go-lucky, what happened to the rage he so violently expressed on his previous albums, but listen more closely and it's not all bluebells in spring, instead there's something much more sinister going on. The playful xylophone merely acts a foil to the creepy and grating beats that drive the song and by the time it's all over, Xiu Xiu dispel all quietude with `In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall', an vicious, straight-up biting love song gone too far. Now Xiu Xiu are back with that piercing blend of fractured pop and avant-garde rambling.
It has been possible in previous Xiu Xiu albums to discern either an intense, visceral experience or a more dominant, charming pop sensibility, but on this album, the distinction is clouded, it is uniquely, both frightening and beautiful. But before you think about the sublime, there's also something overwhelming daunting about such an experience, can it really be sustained for nearly three quarters of an hour without letting up? My guess is that, more so than other Xiu Xiu album, this one is going to take someone with a strong will to sit all the way through in one sitting. An unusual quality for an album to possess, perhaps, but this is Xiu Xiu we're talking about and it's not exactly going to be a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park.
'Guantanamo Canto' is one of those anti-war songs that is as fierce as it is affecting `and your son grows to kill us all/ we say thank you complicity/ your daughter grows to kill us all/ and we say thanks to ease our shame', but somehow it lacks the emotional impact of `Support Our Troops Oh! (Black Angels Oh!)' from Fabulous Muscles. It's not as grim, true, but given its place on the album, its not exactly uplifting either.
Though in the midst of all those torturous whelps and painful guitar scratching, and Jamie Stewart singing about all the atrocious acts of evil that humans commit, from child abuse to racism, there are certain moments, where perhaps Xiu Xiu do offer a sense of hope, no matter how fleeting. And it is in those moments, that the true beauty of the album really shines forth. It's OK to sing angrily about those things that make you mad, but to do so too aggressively would be disruptive and the thing about Xiu Xiu is that they know exactly when to let go and when to hold back. They like to keep things taut, and as exemplified on one of the albums highlights, the cover of `Under Pressure', when the tautness snaps, it is produces an exquisite pain.
Xiu Xiu like to take the listener from one extreme to another, so with songs like `Black Keyboard' a quiet reflective piece about child abuse with a bone-chilling eeriness about it, and `Puff and Bunny' they glide along with minimal effort and restrained synths, but then they use songs like `You Are Pregnant, You Are Dead' and `White Nerd' which have a brutal smattering of electronic whirls, handclaps, drums and swirling synths to really pound the listener into submission. Don't worry though, it's still got those comforting melodies to hold it all together, except maybe they're not so comforting after the third or fourth listen.
Xiu Xiu are never going to produce an album that is charming or reserved, it's just not their thing, and their fans will love them for it. And this still isn't the album that is going to brace the waters, in which a wider audience awaits patiently. Try it out for sure, not to your tastes, give it to a friend. Xiu Xiu have a big following out there somewhere, and Women as Lovers will certainly do them no harm.
on 19 December 2008
There's something to be said for an artist like Jamie Stewart, who, with his twisted Ian Curtis-meets-Conor Oberst constitution, has so boldly extracted the essence of manic depression for 5 albums of cacophony and disturbing avant-pop, without ever bothering to make it more accessible for his listeners. But the reason Women As Lovers succeeds more than any other Xiu Xiu album, is because of it's willingness to open up. Whereas their last two albums focused on distancing it's emotions from the listener through avant touches, Women As Lovers delivers upon the approachable form that the seamlessly consolidated Fabulous Muscles promised. Don't get me wrong, the content itself is still roughly disturbing - just look at the album artwork, which appears to be a naked child-form roughly bound by rope and tourniquet wire. And then there's the heart breaking center of the album, "Black Keyboard" and "Master of the Bump" - two of Stewart's signature acoustic treks into his dark and troubled psyche, enhanced by weary and unflinching lines like "why would mother say such things, why add tongue to her kiss goodnight" and "a child is nothing without hate". But for music that's so blatantly driven by intensity and trauma, the band sounds they're having a ton of fun. The "doo doo doo" yelps in the background of lead single, "I Do What I Want When I Want" make what's already a shambling recording feel even more like a children's recess project. "No Friend Oh!", the album's most immediately catchy song, sounds positively triumphant with the chorus' blaring horn section. And even though you'd expect the end result of Jamie Stewart handling any song with intentions as melodramatic as Queen's "Under Pressure" to be a total depress-fest, what's amazing is how loosely the band plays with it, delightfully reassembling it with a revitalized madhouse arrangement that puts to shame the more predictable versions that have popped up lately (My Chemical Romance and The Used, I'm looking at you). Jamie Stewart's barely controllable melodramatic shouts, Caralee McElroy's gentle whispers and Michael Gira's powerful sing-speaking all take turns, powered by free-jazz dissonance, and a wall of pretty guitars.
What Women As Lovers ultimately does for Xiu Xiu is shed the off-the-walls variety of all their other albums in exchange for a single, tangible, down-to-earth face. Throughout the album there's a consistent sound: a steadily tense, post-punk influenced, rhythmic section, rollicking bass and startlingly violent percussion clashing savagely with Stewart's unstable whimpers, random electro-noise and acoustic meanderings. This new found focus, looseness and attention to jamming (no matter how off-key it may be) all add up to make Xiu Xiu finally sound like a coherent and widely listenable band, rather than a left-of-field recording project. For that, it's undoubtedly their best album to date. (Aron Fischer)
For fans of: Bright Eyes, Joy Division, Deerhoof