[2 May 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When you get an album of covers and remixes of songs by a band notorious for putting out some of the most impenetrable music in recent memory, it’s one of those instances where the potential for a complete musical trainwreck is extremely high, but there’s always the faint hope that at least a couple of the artists involved will take a unique approach and knock the sucker out of the park. Two such compilations have come out in the last couple months; For the Sick, a mammoth tribute to the demented, legendary New Orleans sludge legends Eyehategod, and Remixed & Covered, a collection of, you guessed it, remixes and covers of some of indie rock standout Xiu Xiu’s best-known material. While the Eyehategod disc turned out to be a rousing success, with the great performances far outweighing the inferior, the same cannot be said about the less consistent Remixed & Covered, but that’s not to say the two-disc set is not without its share of gems.
For a band so renowned for minimal, angst-ridden, and often abrasive arrangements (2003’s A Promise remains one of the more harrowing musical excursions of the decade), Xiu Xiu focal point Jamie Stewart is a remarkable singer-songwriter, skillfully walking the precipice between subtle tenderness and unadulterated histrionics on every record. In spite the eclectic nature of Xiu Xiu’s studio output, be it the jarringly sparse A Promise, the slightly more layered Fabulous Muscles, or the more collaborative sound of Air Force, Stewart’s songs always manage to transcend Xiu Xiu’s many eccentricities, and the majority of the 17 contributors to Remixed & Covered succeed as well, but not before finding out that capably reinterpreting this music isn’t as easy as it may seem at first.
Evenly split between the covers and remixes, both discs are imperfect, but are ultimately fairly rewarding. Larsen’s lengthy post-rock treatment of La Forêt standout “Mousey Toy” effectively combines synth drones and a gradual crescendo of piano/guitar/drums with a detached vocal, the blend of the vocals’ apathy and the music’s aching beauty actually improving on the song’s own dramatic element. Folk singer Marissa Nadler’s rendition of “Clowne Towne” tones down on the harshness of the original, her airy synths and plucked guitar beautifully underscoring her winsome voice. Devendra Banhart pops in with his highly ironic doo-wop take on the vitriolic “Support Our Troops”, while Canadian indie darlings Sunset Rubdown manage to steal the show with the superb cover of “Apistat Commander”, taking a much statelier approach, bridging orch pop with space rock. Spencer Krug’s vocal style is actually very similar to that of Stewart’s, but here he tones things down enough to give the song a much more appealing feel.
Band member Caralee McElroy’s “Hello From Eau Claire” was one of the better tracks from last year’s excellent The Air Force, and Gold Chains’s treatment is a highlight of the remixes disc, as San Francisco DJ Topher Lafata transforms the song into a pulsating IDM/electro anthem. Warbucks (consisting of Semiautomatic multi-instrumentalist Akiko Carver) strips Knife Play‘s “Suha” of everything save for Stewart’s aching vocal track, and constructs a backdrop of electronic beats and dignified piano chords; the most striking aspect of this track is just how hugely the song benefits from a much more streamlined arrangement, as Stewart’s extreme self-loathing turns from narcissistic to just plain shattering (making it also one of the rare times you’ll ever hear the words “hit single potential” used in reference to a Xiu Xiu song). Son’s treatment of “Over Over” stays true to the Xiu Xiu aesthetic, as discordant noise and glitch-pop stutters and clicks mask catchy melodies. Oakland artist Kid 606 gives “Bishop, CA” the dance club treatment, the only remnant of the original present being the catchy little “walla walla hey” vocal hook, which is cut-and-pasted all over the track, while Portland, Oregon ambient drone artist Grouper turns “Tonite and Today” into an even darker descent into depression, pushing Stewart’s vocal track so far back into the mix that it sounds like he’s singing from the bottom of a dry well.
The lesser moments on Remixed & Covered are mostly near-misses. Oxbow’s vocal performance on “Saturn” is too precious despite a good acoustic arrangement, too preoccupied with coming off as old-timey folk music. California’s Her Space Holiday comes very close to successfully morphing “I Love the Valley OH!” (arguably Xiu Xiu’s finest moment) into a cabaret-inspired piano tune, but Marc Bianchi’s butchering of Stewart’s French lines quickly becomes unbearable. The only real flat-out failure is Cherry Point’s remix of “Ale”, which is a complete waste of time, nothing but several minutes of arbitrary noise masquerading as something far more clever than it actually is.
Years ago, Jamie Stewart said his goal was to put out a new Xiu Xiu album every year in hopes of becoming as prolific and consistent as the Smiths were in the 1980s, and as the years have gone on, he’s come close to fulfilling his promise. Xiu Xiu’s music continues to polarize listeners, but what Remixed and Covered helps prove is just how talented a songwriter Stewart is, and that underneath all the noise and raw emotion lies some extraordinary pieces of music.