Xiu Xiu: Life and Live

Shandy Casteel

Xiu Xiu flourishes as it wades through layers of childish cries with unabashedly candid mutterings and confrontational arrangements.

Xiu Xiu

Life and Live

Label: Xeng
US Release Date: 2005-10-11
UK Release Date: 2005-07-25
Amazon affiliate

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

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

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