Gross generalization: African films are about the simple, quotidian concerns of village communities or, to be blunt, the most boring of lives; their directors tend to bore audiences silly in hopes of creating psychological sympathy but instead send cinephiles screaming for the exits. Xiu Xiu takes a similar approach to making music about pain. Jamie Stewart, and his San Jose, CA mob of nearly a dozen rotating members, makes some of the most beautiful, innovative, unique and assaultive music that only the few and the brave can bear to hear. Xiu Xiu reject the paradox of making pretty music about agonizing experiences, creating a hybrid of disparate elements that can be painful to listen to in all its frenetic glory. The oft-asked question “are they kidding?” is best answered by the sticker affixed to Knife Play, which serves as both a thank you to sources of inspiration and a frank warning shot to would-be listeners: “When my mom died I listened to Henry Cowell, Joy Division, Detroit techno, the Smiths, Takemitsu, Sabbath, Gamelan, ‘Black Angels’ and Cecil Taylor (Jamie Stewart).” It may be funny, but it’s no joke.
Xiu Xiu was born out of the wreckage of Ten in the Swear Jar, a band with Jamie Stewart and Cory McCulloch, that was the cleaned-up continuation of their ska combo, IBOPA. The lone Swear Jar album, My Very Private Map, is a pop record with some ska instrumentation (horns, accordion) worked into the flow of drum machines and keening keyboard riffs. While the lyrics are just as haunted as anything on a Xiu Xiu record (“It just died; I did not kill it / It just died; I did not kill it”), Stewart’s vocals are reined in tight, and songs like “Sita Deth,” complete with chugging guitars and an explosive chorus, aren’t too far from Sebadoh’s more melodramatic moments and just as easy (relative to Xiu Xiu) on the ears. The song “Sad Girl” (later resurrected as a Xiu Xiu track) is an outright catchy sing-a-long bouncing to a cheery bassline. Though there are hints of the guilt-ridden anxieties that would take the foreground in his next band, My Very Private Map is the polite record one might expect from just such a practicing Lutheran, vegan, pre-school teacher and social worker.
In the two years between the breakup of Swear Jar and the start of Xiu Xiu, Stewart’s life turned tragic: He lost close friends to drug addiction, he was faced with the realities of the lives of “at risk” children and his mother died. These experiences are the springboard for Knife Play. The lyrics, the instrumental and vocal shrapnel that shred the album are as sincere as they are out of control. Looking at the sticker, it’s difficult to gauge exactly what the Smiths, Sabbath and gamelan music have to do with it. Xiu Xiu is an orchestra containing all of the above conducted by a distraught maniac. “Don Diasco” (named after accordionist and Swear Jar/Xiu Xiu member Don Dias) comes in with a gamelan beat, hopelessly distorted keyboards and moaning, shrieking vocals spitting out lyrics so garbled with desperation that the specifics of this suffering are lost in mystery: “It’s always the same; nothing happened / I cross my wrist now you shut up!” This is followed by “I Broke Up (SJ),” which contains the first of Jamie’s full-out screams and the memorable lyric “This is the worst vacation ever / I am going to cut open your forehead with a roofing shingle.” Knife Play continues in this vein until “Suha,” a song of plaintive and staggering beauty. It begins calmly, a softly told story of a trapped and suicidal young woman, that leads to gently liberating guitars and horns that offer a faint glimmer of hope and escape.
A Promise finds Stewart and Xiu Xiu more balanced. His vocals are more up front and, free of distortion. The album opens with “Sad Girl” revamped as “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl,” with the sing-a-long chorus of “I like my job, I like my neighborhood, I like my gun / Driving my little car, I am your girl and I will protect you.” There’s a sense of pride on this album that distinguishes it from the shame spiral of Knife Play. Stewart and McCulloch have removed the haze and garble from Xiu Xiu’s debut with production that is clear as a bell. A danceable electronic pulse sends tracks like “Brooklyn Dodgers,” the most dynamic Xiu Xiu song to date, soaring on strings both synthetic and real, feeding into a guitar drone that fits the malicious mock apologies in the lyrics. A Promise does get carried away with a maudlin cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and some sloppy phrases (“I am the dumbest bitch on the planet,” doesn’t exactly inspire) but, when all is said and done, it firmly establishes Xiu Xiu as one of the more innovative and original acts currently in action.
While on tour for A Promise, Xiu Xiu’s van and all of the band’s equipment was stolen. Undaunted, Jamie pressed on alone as Xiu Xiu, playing one-man sets of the band’s songs on guitar and occasional hand organ. That inspired a new Xiu Xiu sound on the Fag Patrol EP, which revisits some old songs (including the Swear Jar track “Helsabot”) with a minimalist, acoustic approach. As it turned out, the new material, along with the acoustic numbers recorded for the split EP with The Jim Yoshii Pile- Up, were sketches for the next Xiu Xiu album.
The title track of Fabulous Muscles first appeared on Xiu Xiu & the Jim Yoshii Pile-Up. While gay porn/horror lyrics about a man begging a cruel lover to cremate him and keep his ashes under his workout bench is no breakthrough for the band, the real shift is in the pop structure. Foregoing the startling flourishes of the previous albums, Fabulous Muscles is as close as Xiu Xiu has gotten to radio-friendly. The inclusion of Stewart’s cousin Caralee McElroy in the band is undoubtedly part of the reason: she adds straightforward happiness to the instrumentals and a paean to her, “Little Panda McElroy,” is the album’s most sweetly intimate moment. For all the high school angst of the lyrics, “Crank Heart” is electro-pop, its joyful beeps cascading over the deep hum of keyboard bass and twitching beats. “I Love the Valley, Oh!” recalls the Cure’s heavy-guitar work and makes Stewart’s scream, once heartbreaking, into a battle cry for the Xiu Xiu audience.