Getting around Xiu Xiu’s antagonistic pretense is virtually out of the question. Those who have already taken a side are soundly in the I hate them or the I love them camp, and there just aren’t many swing voters being courted in this election. Most of that, of course, is the result of the enigmatic Jamie Stewart who makes fence-sitting impossible with the band’s unsteady, hushed vocals and brazenly molested melodies. Xiu Xiu continually manages to grow, transcending its beautifully misshapen style, never falling victim to straining the pretensions too far. Instead, Steward crafts dirty little gems of ringing apprehension. These tunes scrape the same cinematic planes Abel Ferrara’s films bottom-feed from—you don’t want to look (or listen), but turning away is impossible. Xiu Xiu would be easily dispatched if its songs weren’t so inherently addicting—the filth of reality floating on top of an undercurrent of melodies and rhythms, components that usually sink lesser experimental acts. With Xiu Xiu, it’s a undisguised sublime suffocation that awaits listeners on each and every record.
With such raw-nerved source material, maybe calling the latest Life and Live stripped-down and naked smacks wearyingly of being cliched, since Xiu Xiu, even at its experimental-haymaking noisiest, already picks and pecks through its musical catalog with the barest of intentions. Just how exposed can someone that’s already unclothed be? Barring Jamie Stewart throwing down a complete record of a capella numbers sometime soon, Life and Live supplies a full-figured sketch of the intricately creeping formula Xiu Xiu continues to make all their own. It’s also a record that will temporarily soothe the shuddering souls of those itching for even more of the band’s hands-around-your-throat rock and lyrical wrist-slicing. Not that there’s been any lack of material for fans to draw from, since 2005 has seen continued prolific output from the discordant emotional act with its touring and release schedule already overflowing. Life and Live marks the fifth disc from Stewart-related projects this year, having been preceded by Ciautistico!, a collaboration with idiosyncratic Italian rockers Larsen, Xiu Xiu’s uneasily hypnotic full-length La Foret, a split single with Devendra Banhart, and Accordion Solo!, a compilation from the early Stewart oddity Ten in the Swear Jar which features tracks like “I Love the Valley” in the early stages of their development.
With such momentum following the band, it’s hard to imagine anyone shedding a tear for Stewart, but fans of Xiu Xiu, like the singer himself, perilously dangle on affecting fractures of sentiment which always look as if they’re ready to rip wide open with one final quake from Stewart’s voice. These jangled emotions get lit right away on Life and Live, an inspired disc of live acoustic recordings taped while on tour overseas with Devendra Banhart. This disc strips away Stewart’s vocal distortions and the other tricks detractors usually point to when decrying the band’s experimental streak. Some of the songs, like the prickly guitar opener (which is also reprised mid-album) “20,000 Deaths for Eidelyn Gonzales, 20,000 Deaths for Jamie Peterson” and the blistering “Jennifer Lopez” retain their intricately forceful narratives. Others, such as the also twice represented (the first version a bit more subdued than the latter) “I Broke Up”, shake off their churning techno-trappings and leave only Stewart’s guitar and his trembling voice with a pinpoint intensity that makes for welcome listening. While Stewart might not be able to out-Morrissey Morrissey in the crooning department, the earnestness of Xiu Xiu’s brief cover of the Smith’s “Asleep” is equal to the song’s tight-fisted solemnity.
Stewart’s lyrics tend to be a big draw for Xiu Xiu, and on Life and Live, unencumbered by the usual machinations of the band’s sound, his words not only rattle and shake with the recognizable tremors and breathless urgency, but cut raptly through the music in new ways, letting the lines bring full attention to the elegiac shading that is sometimes overblown by the distorted musings of the band’s musical backing. Even the tracks recorded in front of an audience have an odd hollowness that is both isolating and touching, making Stewart seem as if he is right beside you whispering in your ear, yet unreachably far away. Xiu Xiu mostly succeeds with the help of this dichotomy, because when Stewart sings sentiments like “I like my neighborhood, I like my gun / Driving my little car, I am your girl and I will protect you” in the restlessly moving “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl”, he is both a smothering over-protector and chillingly irrational menace, The multi-layered thread is a stage Xiu Xiu strides well upon, especially on recent tours with band mate Caralee McElroy, who helps Stewart take the recorded pieces and give them an undeniable exigency live.
On Life and Live, this urgency isn’t lessened, it’s just redirected. The solo setup offers Stewart a folksy channel to push his tunes through, letting them breathe a little more than they are accustomed, and it works surprisingly well. Think of Jamie Stewart what you will, but the music he continues to write and play never allows itself to become parody, and in a genre that sometimes mistakes sonic clumsiness for genius, Xiu Xiu marks its own path, and if it doesn’t clear the way for listeners to easily follow, it doesn’t make the trek any less admirable.