Music

Xiu Xiu: Always

Xiu Xiu, a decade into its career, returns with another album of songs utterly possessed of Jamie Stewart's unique creative voice.

Xiu Xiu

Always

Label: Polyvinyl
US Release Date: 2012-03-06
UK Release Date: 2012-02-27
Amazon
iTunes

It has become an American tradition: gathering the kids around the phonograph in the living room, you and the missus in matching footie pajamas, your after-work hair tussled just so, a round of big glasses of whole milk in Bobby and Suzie’s little hands, all of your loved ones together in one place to have a listen to the new Xiu Xiu record.

“This is the worst vacation ever,” harmonizes tiny Bobby, “I’m going to cut open your forehead with a roofing shingle.”

Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart has spent the last decade (!) creating one of the most coherent, immediately recognizable aural worlds in contemporary music. Picture Stewart leading a tram tour of this world, his breathy Morrissey-on-Percocet voice piped through the tinny speakers, pointing out the sights. To the left, you will see a man equally charmed and disgusted by another man’s deformed penis. To the right, you will see a woman with duct tape on her mouth and nipples, and you will be unsure whether or not she is enjoying or hating her bondage. Probably, it’s a little of both. Something that sounds like pieces of a broken plate glass window thrown against the world’s largest brass cymbal suddenly fills your ears, and you say ouch.

The tour is over, and you immediately step over the velvet rope – what is that stain? – and wait for it to begin again.

Xiu Xiu’s new offering, Always, sees Stewart again jettisoning his past teammates and sidling up next to a new partner, Angela Seo. But, per usual, despite whatever iteration of names appears on the liner notes, Always sounds like a Jamie Stewart production through and through. Xiu Xiu’s last album, Dear God, I Hate Myself (2010), was the project’s most accessible of its career. Stewart turned the noise down, the melodies up, and made – arguably for the first time in his life – a true pop record. Always feels like something of a return to his abrasive comfort zone.

The album’s opening track and first single, “Hi”, stands apart. Its lyrics are so wonderfully, utterly Xiu’d, that perfect mixture of the macabre, heartfelt, and amusing Stewart can so readily concoct. “If you are alone tonight, say hi,” sings Stewart, “If there’s a hole in your head, say hi.” Dumb, meaningful, meaningful, dumb. The chorus, captivating with Stewart’s stuttering rhythms, builds into a surprisingly muscular coda by song’s end. The song, like the rest of Xiu Xiu’s best material, is an uncomfortable mess of conflicting tones, bubbly keys and bursts of dissonance – the type of creature that would, if you met it at a party, toss daggers your way in equal measure for laughing or not laughing at its deadpan asides.

Statistically, the second track on Xiu Xiu albums is usually the strongest (see: “Apistat Commander,” “I Luv the Valley OH!,” “Muppet Face,” “Boy Soprano”), the place on his records where Stewart decides to drop his most emotionally direct, compositionally immediate song of the bunch. On Always, Stewart keeps the pattern going. “Joey’s Song,” with its gorgeous chorus – Seo’s backing vocals sound almost Balearic, a new one for Xiu Xiu – becoming more indelible with each repetition.

But after this initial one-two, Always loses some of its shape. “Beauty Towne” and “Honey Suckle” mine the dark electro-pop of Dear God to good effect, though neither is as memorable as the best efforts on that album. It would have been more interesting to find, after seeing its title on the track list, “I Love Abortion” to be a pretty, gentle track, but it’s the most aggressive cut here, disappointingly transparent in its grab for attention. Stewart is usually more complicated than that. Fortunately, “The Oldness” surprises with its plaintive piano, one of the least self-conscious tearjerkers in Xiu Xiu’s catalogue.

Always’s Side B feels almost shockingly incomplete when compared to the material preceding it, with a number of tracks fading from memory right when they finish. “Factory Girl” at least features some interesting production, a subtle panoply of strange noises not vying for primacy so much as contented to create an atmosphere. “Smear the Queen” gets off the ground by virtue of Stewart and Seo’s engaging duet, while “Black Drum Machine,” in its stretches of silence and jagged vocalizations, recalls the early days of A Promise in a way that’s at least charming for longtime fans, if not completely gripping.

Ten years into his career, it’s difficult to find anyone still on the fence about Jamie Stewart and Xiu Xiu. However, though his detractors would argue otherwise, Stewart doesn’t make music intent on polarization as its primary goal. Rather, he writes songs in a voice so distinctive and unusual that it can’t help but seem too strange – or too convinced of its strangeness – to some listeners. I don’t think this is an effect; I think Stewart is the rare artist who hews as closely to his creative impulses as possible, letting them take him to places both uncomfortable and inviting, depending on the moment. If nothing else, this is a sort of fearlessness, and that’s worth your time.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image