Xiu Xiu

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Knife Play , 7/10
A Promise (2003), 7.5/10
Fabulous Muscles (2004), 6/10
La Foret (2005), 7.5/10
The Air Force (2006) , 6/10
Women As Lovers (2008) , 6.5/10
Dear God (2011), 5/10
Always (2012) , 5/10
Angel Guts - Red Classroom (2014), 5/10
Respectful & Clean (2015), 6/10
Forget (2017), 6.5/10
Girl With Basket of Fruit (2019), 6/10
Oh No (2021), 5/10
Ignore Grief (2023), 6.5/10

(Clicka qui per la versione Italiana)

Xiu Xiu, an experimental San Diego-based rock band fronted by vocalist Jamie Stewart and framed by Cory McCulloch's bass and Yvonne Chen's and Lauren Andrews' cheesy keyboards (plus trumpets, saxophones, bells, gongs, etc), debuted with the five-song EP Chapel Of The Chimes (Absolutely Kosher, 2002) and the album Knife Play (5rc, 2002 - Absolutely Kosher, 2002).

Knife Play (5rc, 2002 - Absolutely Kosher, 2002) is a highly eccentric and creative album that ideally bridges the generation of Pere Ubu and the generation of Radiohead (the wildly introverted and apocalyptic sounds of the new wave and the wildly extroverted and "renaissance" sounds of the late 1990s). The quartet paints abstract mood pieces that simmer and boil, but never loses control of the energy it radiates.
The unbecoming threnody of Don Diasco careens through cacophonous guitar/organ miasma and erratic percussions, emanating a form of desperation that links Steve Albini and Trent Reznor.
The agonizing elegy of Luber, drained by a funereal horn fanfare over metallic percussion, manages to sound grotesquely insane but also humanely touching. Stewart impersonates a character who is both anthemic and neurotic at the same time.
Thus Hives Hives sustains a crescendo of epic shoegazing distortion and operatic melodrama. It is the album's guitar workout, running the gamut from Pink Floyd's Astronomy Domine to industrial music.
Dr Troll is emblematic of another side of Xiu Xiu: the purely atmospheric soundpainting, mostly via a contrast of harsh dissonance and barely implied melody or rhythm. Noises and keyboards take over as the main instruments of music, while the vocals become a footnote.
In one of the most subtle scenes of the album's play, industrial and alien dissonances scour the sparse landscape of Anne Dong for meaning. The similarity with post-"modern dance" Pere Ubu is amplified by Stewart's dreamy and otherworldly vocals.
And the piano lied Tonite and Today closes the album with hardly an element of what came before, or rather with the exaggerated tones of expressionist theater.
The art of Xiu Xiu is not always so hostile. Poe Poe charges with a disco-fied voodoobilly beat, and the keyboards even intone a folkish melody. Waves of agonizing vocals tame the techno pulse of Over Over. Suha attains a lyrical splendor, despite the organ, the guitar, the accordion and the saxophone and especially the drum-machine take turns at ridiculing the singing. However, these are minor detours; waste that will be quickly shed by the band.
Given the bold premises and the caleidoscopic imagination of the musicians, the album unleashed only half of the power that it could have. The impression is one of an unfinished masterpiece, a design that was only partially implemented.
The most significant finding is that Jamie Stewart created one of the few truly innovative styles of singing of the decade, hardly singing at all.

The use of silence and of non-melodic singing was even more prominent and effective on A Promise (5RC, 2003 - Jyrk, 2004), that continued their exploration of the border between music and non-music. Gothic in spirit, but too rarified to be anything at all, Xiu Xiu's music left behind any pretense of songwriting, focusing almost exclusively on the (angst-ridden) atmosphere.
Stewart's schizoid persona dominates the proceedings, from the declamation of Sad Pony Guerilla Girl, against sparse, acoustic, ukulele-style guitar strumming, and suddenly devastated by electronic noise, to the agonizing screaming of Apistat Commander, with casual beats and electronic noises and sudden explosions of hysterical jackhammer electronic rhythm, to Brooklyn Dodgers, in which Stewart's wavering prayer-like vocals reach a develish intensity. to the melodramatic recitation of Ian Curtis Wishlist, over a barely audible violin, that closes the album. Stewart's calvary "is" the subject, not the object, of this album.
There is more silence than music in Sad Redux-O-Grapher, barely caressed by a mournful violin (at the beginning and at the end) and digital bits, otherwise surrendered to the tortured vocals. The sparse sounds and the spoken words of Walnut House create a disoriented atmosphere of psychodrama. 20,000 Deaths for Eidelyn Gonzales 20,000 Deaths for Jamie Peterson is emblematic of the difference between this "new wave" and the new wave of 1977: compared with Suicide, the electronic melody sounds sardonic, the electronic rhythm is irregular, the vocals hum instead of biting. Xiu Xiu's music is a metaphor for a less violent but more profound mental disease. The only pieces that can compare with the terrible neurosis of Nine Inch Nails are Pink City, that boasts the loudest rhythm and distortion, but the vocals are merely a whisper and the nightmare is over in just two minutes, and Blacks, scarred by sudden bursts of atrocious guitar riffs.
Stewart's dramatic skills have further improved. His vocal histrionics border on theatrical recitation, unveiling on obvious relationship between music and theater that had long been suppressed. He seems capable of "delivering" a song without singing a note of it. In parallel the arrangements have further declined to the status of mere signs. Whether it's electronic, digital or acoustic, the accompaniment falls short of the most elementary musical qualities. Not only is each instrument limited to a few seconds of sound, and not only are those sounds mostly atonal, but there is virtually no counterpoint, harmony, polyphony. Xiu Xiu's songs rely more on silence than on sound. Inevitably, this becomes Stewart's show, more so than in any other rock band.

Xiu Xiu went electronic on Fabulous Muscles (5 Rue Christine, 2004). The more intense use of electronic keyboards enhanced the emotional appeal of Stewart's suicidal kammerspiels (Crank Heart, Clowne Towne, Brian the Vampire and especially the spectral and delirious I Luv The Valley OH), and did not detract from the vibrant, hysterical edge that underlies the band's most memorable moments. However, there are few examples of their dilated psychodramas. Bunny Gamer crafts an emotional beatscape. Little Panda McElroy is a lullaby for silence and distorted drones. Mike drops meaningless words into a nightmarish lake of noises. The harrowing spoken-word performance of Support Our Troops employs extremely cacophonous musique concrete.

Despite the more commercial melodies and the far less impressive vocal range, Jamie Stewart's persona resembles the young David Thomas: a rambling neurotic who indulges in provocative, cathartic, theatrical, unsettling performances that come through as both bizarre and lyrical, vicious and shy, evil and sweet. On La Foret (5 Rue Christine, 2005) the performance has improved, and thus the show of introversion, as are the arrangements (guitar, harmonium, tuba, vibraphone, clarinet, cello, autoharp, etc). Repenting from the trivial tunesmithship of the previous album, the band returns to more adventurous structures achieving a subtler form of sound-painting.
The sequencing of the songs may have a meaning of its own. Less is more in opener Clover, an anguished, skeletal Nick Drake-ian lied for guitar, cello and xylophone. Muppet Face is just the opposite: a virulent strain of industrial music detonates a pseudo-bossanova beat. Silence rules again in Mousey Toy, the voice alone in a landscape of minuscule beats and sparse dissonances Pox, by contrast, sounds like a (relatively straightforward) Rolling Stones-ian shuffle, replete with strident rock riffs and propulsive rhythm. Silence again impedes the progress of rock music, demoting Baby Captain to little more than three minutes of absent-minded guitar doodling with some circus music embedded in the middle. The nightmare resumes with Saturn, with Stewart alternating groan and whisper amid a maelstrom of industrial drilling and distorted organ.
Rose of Sharon breaks the silent-loud pattern: a gloomy elegy for voice, guitar and accordion drones, it transforms into a soaring hymn within three minutes and then decays into desperate shouting. It represents the peak of Stewart's "acting" show.
More chamber music, even with a strong "Mitteleuropean" accent, permeates Ale, the album's apex in terms of compositional complexity, a blend of Webern's expressionism and Schaeffer's musique concrete.
The lively ego of the album takes control again in Bog People, a lively "danse macabre" driven by machine-gun rhythms worthy of Nine Inch Nails. And, sure enough, this is followed by more silence: the bedroom delirium of Dangerous You Shouldn't Be Here.
The closer, Yellow Raspberry, instead of summarizing the turbulent journey seems to start a new one: musique concrete, chaotic banging, Brecht-ian declamation, acoustic strumming, ...
Stewart's psychoanalytic show knows no respite. By the last song, the singer has mutated from a more rational David Thomas to a "lite" Trent Reznor. The split personality of the protagonist is reflected in the two wildly different styles of the songs, some bordering on silence and some bordering on violent fits. Regardless of the style, each is a meticulous, sophisticated construction.

Ciautistico! (Important, 2005), credited to XXL, was a collaboration with Larsen.

Life And Live (Xeng, 2005) is a live album.

As a whole, The Air Force (5 Rue Christine, 2006) is still a powerful emotional gesture, but individually very few pieces stand out (Boy Soprano, the instrumental Saint Pedro Glue Stick). Tellingly, catchier song is Hello from Eau Claire, by a brand new member, multi-instrumentalist Caralee McElroy.

7 Year Rabbit Cycle, a super group of sorts formed by Rob Fisk and Kelly Goodefisk of Deerhoof with Xiu Xiu's vocalist Jamie Stewart and drummer Ches Smith, played avantgarde folk-rock on Ache Horns (Free Porcupine Society, 2006).

What truly shines on Women As Lovers (Kill Rock Stars, 2008) are the free-form intermezzos: the toy-like percussive sounds that include a xylophone, the saxophone skronk, the sneezing-like cymbals in I Do What I Want, When I Want; the atrocious bacchanal of You Are Pregnant You, accompanied with all sorts of noises; the grotesque explosions of Child At Arms; and the layers of cosmic hallucinations in the eerie serenade Gayle Lynn. Their jungles of sound effects create a disorienting feeling of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The mildly melodic No Friend Oh (with a clownesque horn fanfare) and the relatively regular, strummed lullaby FTW stand as a nice counterweight to bleak, noisy psychodramas such as In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall, an effective case of alternate dynamics (a feeble recitation that alternates with an eruption of pounding organ, storming drums and colossal cello lines).
The singing is consistently creative and offbeat. It even evokes David Thomas' dadaistic eccentricity in the powerful Guantanamo Canto. But perhaps it sounds more original in the naked, harrowing arrangement of Black Keyboards, like a cross between Nick Drake and the phantom of the opera.
A cover of David Bowie's Under Pressure with Michael Gira on vocals is their sarcastic middle finger to the music industry.

Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart also played in Former Ghosts, the project of Freddy Ruppert (of This Song Is A Mess But So Am I) and teenage vocalist Zola Jesus, that debuted with Fleurs (Upset! The Rhythm, 2009) in the vein of old-fashioned dark-punk.

Dear God (Kill Rock Stars, 2011) adopted electronic keyboards and drum-machines, a major departure from Xiu Xiu's original aesthetic.
The subdued prayer-like elegy of Gray Death switches with formidable precision between symphonic and acoustic modes, like the Smiths gone prog-rock. The fascination with the 1980s also emerges from Chocolate Makes You Happy, whose dark melody, danceable beat and random noises evoke a more intellectual and less gloomy version of Joy Division. In fact this song could mark the transition to a new phase the way Love Will Tear Us Apart marked the transition from Joy Division to New Order. More echoes of the 1980s surface in the plaintive ballad This Too Shall Pass Away.
The album's quintessence is far from mere retro, though. The clockwork musique concrete and glitch electronica of Apple For A Brain, that would otherwise be a childish singalong, make for a witty and actually intelligent version of Radiohead. The propulsive tension and post-industrial radiations of House Sparrow sound like an update of Pere Ubu's modern dance.
The price they pay for focusing too obsessively on the digital arrangements is that the anthemic hook of Dear God I Hate Myself never blooms. Hidden in a jungle of sound effects, it is downgraded to being one of the many elements of the piece. The ripping riff of Secret Motel that could match the intensity of digital hardcore fades into a generic techno-funk groove.
The bad news is that, for the first time, a Xiu Xiu album is also cluttered with filler. The second half is mostly disposable. This should have been an EP.
The impression, inevitably, is that Xiu Xiu has reached a point when the interest for composing music is less than the interest for toying with the process of recording music.

Xiu Xiu's drummer Ches Smith and Xiu Xiu's bassist Devin Hoff recorded as Good For Cows the electronic free-jazz instrumental jams of Good for Cows (2001), Less Than or Equal to (2003), Bebop Fantasy (2004) and Audumla (Web Of Mimicry, 2010).

Xiu Xiu's Always (Polyvinyl, 2012) still boasts their ability to talk to the collective unconscious of their age with jarring stories wrapped in jarring sounds, but the fact that it needs emphatic arrangements and confrontational lyrics to deliver the goods is a testament to how artificial now they sound. And, yet, they indulge in harrowing visions, like I Luv Abortion and Factory Girl. The sense of tragedy, however, is mostly gone. The simpler and relatively serene Beauty Towne, Joey's Song and especially Honeysuckle (not written by Stewart but by Angela Seo) best represent the new Xiu Xiu.

Stewart and Eugene Robinson of Oxbow released Sal Mineo (Important, 2013).

Xiu Xiu's Nina (Graveface, 2013) is a cover album, a tribute to Nina Simone, featuring a jazzy lineup with Ches Smith on drums, Andrea Parker (accordion, electronics, piano and synth), Tony Malaby (tenor sax), Mary Halvorson (guitar) and Tim Berne (alto and baritone saxes).

Angel Guts - Red Classroom (Juno, 2014), titled after a Japanese porn movie of 1979, is pervaded by a demonic hysteria. Musically, however, half of it is disposable. The half that works works well enough, although Stupid in the Dark is fundamentally a Suicide ripoff and the alien synth cacophony of Lawrence Liquors is facile sci-fi muzak. The lugubrious industrial music of Black Dick and especially the martial thundering symphonic Botanica de Los Angeles justify the existence of the album. Too much of the rest ends up in David Bowie-esque perverted crooning (Bitter Melon) or in too much cinematic flavor (A Knife in the Sun).

Stewart also recorded in Iceland the cover album Unclouded Sky (2014), devoted to US and Caribbean folk songs of a century earlier, performed on a guitar of 1953.

Merzxiu (2015) documents a collaboration between Jamie Stewart and Merzbow, but it comes through as a very minor Merzbow album. Neo Tropical Companion Hearts (2015) is a field recording of jungle sounds, although the title is similar to the collection of haikus published by Jamie Stewart, "Neo Tropical Companion" (2012). Tired of Your World (2015) is another album of field recordings, this time from Peru. The mini-album Kling Klang (2015) contains 18 brief pieces composed from the sounds of one thousand pink vibrators.

The cassette Respectful & Clean (2015) contains two lengthy sound collages, Desistance, that alternate between dissonant percussive industrial music and droning ambient music (notably the sinister ending), and Mine, a more organic piece that sounds like a symphonic film soundtrack.

Plays the Music of Twin Peaks (2016) contains cover versions of the "Twin Peaks" soundtrack. Drunk Commentary - Dear God, I Hate Myself (2016) began a series of self-analysis of Xiu Xiu albums by a drunk Jamie Stewart.

Forget (Polyvinyl, 2017), is, on the surface, Xiu Xiu's most accessible album but in reality it is the most carefully carefully architected. Each song is sculpted in every minute detail borrowing from multiple genres. The catchy single Wondering blends synth-pop, industrial rock a` la Nine Inch Nails and Suicide. The Call juxtaposes feverish singing and clownish synth, and then throws in a baroque organ break. Jenny GoGo drenches the suffering into a rhythmic exuberance borrowed from the Fleetwood Mac's Tusk and the gothic dance of Killing Joke. Queen of the Losers is a hyper-dramatic David Bowie-esque recitation in a jungle of sound effects, which in Forget acquires an almost militaristic emphasis. Get Up presents a wildly more emotional Lou Reed (it opens on the chords of the Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane), and is followed by the terminal depression of Hay Choco Bananas, whose whispered wail collides with the magniloquence of an infernal dance. The closer and gothic apex, Faith Torn Apart, is a choral prayer that ends with a Stewart poem read by drag artist Vaginal Davis over a repetitive pattern designed by minimalist pioneer Charlemagne Palestine. All in all, this marks a return to form for the Xiu Xiu project.

Girl With Basket of Fruit (2019) is the deranged complement to the relatively geometric rationality of Forget. It sounds like the soundtrack to a nervous breakdown. It opens with the dissonant nightmare of Girl with Basket of Fruit amid tribal drumming and shouted insanity. It continues with the warped and unstable It Comes Out as a Joke and reaches an emotional nadir in Amargi ve Moo, a lugubrious lied lost in a sparse soundscape of cello tones and electronic effects. After the industrial hip-hop of Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy and the abstract horror soundtrack of Mary Turner Mary Turner, this Freudian trip ends with the frenzied Haitian drumming and psychotic singing/speaking of Scisssssssors and with the expressionist chamber lied Normal Love. Stewart is one of the great stylists of singing of the era, and his intensely lyrical warbly vocals, his panicked cry, constitute half of the show.

Oh No (2021) collects 15 "duets", and it feels like the other side of the neurotic madness of Girl With Basket of Fruit: Xiu Xiu's least disturbing work yet. Jamie Stewart's voice has found its niche, half-way between the latter-day David Bowie and the gloomy mid-career Nick Cave, as demonstrated in Sad Mezcalita (with Sharon Van Etten). Most of the songs are straightforward melodies with simple arrangements, and the exceptions are not particularly effective (the inconclusive cacophony and chaos of Goodbye for Good, the savage funk-punk dance Rumpus Room with the Liars). In the end there isn't much to salvage: the anemic and distorted lament of Saint Dymphna (with Twin Shadow), the expressionist kammerspiel atmosphere of I Dream of Someone Else Entirely (with Owen Pallett), the operatic folk The Grifters (with Haley Fohr), and the U2-esque pathos of Knock Out (with Alice Bag). Particularly disappointing is A Bottle of Rum, the bombastic duet with Liz Harris of Grouper. It is a bad sign that the best song is a cover of the Cure's One Hundred Years.

Meanwhile, Jamie Stewart had launched Hexa, a duo with Australian composer Lawrence English devoted to droning ambient music on Hexa (2015), Factory Photographs (2016), Achromatic (2018), which also features Merzbow, and Material Interstices (2021), with the nine-minute The Exquisite Crushing of Atlas.

Xiu Xiu followed one of their easiest albums with one of their most difficult ones. This alternating of styles was becoming a pattern in their career: Forget was followed by Girl With Basket of Fruit, and the trivial Oh No was followed by an album of dissonant industrial music, Ignore Grief (2023). Xiu Xiu often flirted with dissonant and gothic soundscapes but here the whole album is just one intense composition in that genre, more related to post-Schoenberg chamber classical music than to rock music. A veritable chamber ensemble was involved in the recording: David Kendrick (percussion), Ben Chisholm (keyboards), Ezra Buchla (viola), Patrick Shiroishi (saxophones), plus a chamber orchestra of strings, woodwings and brass, and of course plus the duo's own electronics. It feels like a creepy cinematic soundtrack to an experimental horror movie. The disordered cacophony of The Real Chaos Cha Cha Cha, Maybae Baeby and Border Factory evokes nightmarish scenes. Field recordings and found percussion are scattered throughout. The duo hardly sings. The pieces are mostly spoken-word, appropriately ghostly, mostly whispered, or barely whined, alternatively male and female. 666 Photos of Nothing sounds like the phantom of the opera playing a church organ and falling dead on the keys. The fainting free-jazz ambience of Pahrump is his requiem. On the other hand, tense orchestral lieder like Tarsier Tarsier Tarsier Tarsier and Dracula Parrot Moon Moth belong to expressionist musical theater. Esquerita Little Richard stands out: a percussive Suicide-like threnody thrown into a nuclear centrifuge. The eight-minute For M is probably meant to be the crowning achievement of the album's concept but it largely fails to achieve more drama than the shorter pieces, devoting most of its duration to a windy drone.

Xiu Xiu's drummer Ches Smith started a solo career in jazz with Interpret It Well (recorded in october 2020), recorded with Bill Frisell (guitar), Craig Taborn (piano) and Mat Mneri (viola). He had already recorded Laugh Ash (october 2017), on which he played electronics, programming, vibes, drums, tubular bells, glockenspiel, timpani, tom-tom and metal percussion, along with Shara Lunon (voice and vocal processing), Anna Webber (flute), Oscar Noriega (clarinets), James Brandon Lewis (tenor sax), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Korean Jennifer Choi (violin), Michael Nicholas (cello), Kyle Armbrust (viola) and Shahzad Ismaily (bass).

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