It's a beautiful thing when a band goes out on a limb to make its most personal and strangest work. But when that work is also greatly accessible (and we mustn't forget that the two aren't incompatible), when you'd bet even money that this is also going to make them big stars, that's cause for celebration. Jamie Stewart has been making fragile and super-intense music for years. He's gained a strong cult following based on his provocative lyrics, frayed rhythms, and beyond-emo vocalizings. There's nothing precious about Women as Lovers, which is named after a work by the Austrian feminist author Elfriede Jelinek. Righteous and necessary political statements ("Gauntanamo Canto") edge into party songs (a brilliant cover of the Freddie Mercury/David Bowie collaboration "Under Pressure," with guest vocals from Michael Gira) in a way that gives both more weight. You might say that this is Xiu Xiu's Dub Housing, or that it sounds like the Arcade Fire scoring a David Lynch film. Either way, it's amazing. --Mike McGonigal
Review by Heather Phares
Xiu Xiu is so expert at straddling the line between avant-garde and indie rock that they've completely erased it. On Women as Lovers, there's less of a gap than ever between the band's ironically poppy (but genuinely) catchy songs and their experimental, unflinching ones. "I Do What I Want, When I Want" opens the album with chirpy synths and hints of a cheerful xylophone melody that are abandoned in what sounds like a sheet metal factory; hooky "doo-do-doo-do-doo" backing vocals are put through a distortion wringer. It's intense, it's uneasy -- but it's also strangely immediate in a way that only Xiu Xiu can manage. Over the rest of Women as Lovers, Jamie Stewart, Caralee McElroy, and crew cover the spectrum of their sounds, from "No Friend Oh!"'s outraged almost-pop to "Puff and Bunny"'s broken, self-loathing gamelan. The band's approach is so well defined now, so cleverly honed, that small changes make a big difference in their sound. Women as Lovers has a rough richness that sets it apart from La Foret's fractured electronics or The Air Force's spaciousness: percussion and voice are the album's main motifs, augmented by strings, super-saturated synths, and caustic guitar. "In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall" crashes in on big rock drums, then retreats into gentle, reverbed passages; "You Are Pregnant, You Are Dead" is muscular and downright brutal, with a steeply climbing melody pushed onward by more massive drums. In fact, much of Women as Lovers is as bleak as its namesake, Elfriede Jelinek's 1995 novel, but Xiu Xiu covers a wider scope, giving voices to many complex and anguished characters and situations. As always, the band rarely oversimplifies matters -- witness "White Nerd"'s mix of rage and sympathy. Women as Lovers gets increasingly bleak as it unfolds: on "Guantanamo Canto," Stewart sings, "My country needs this freedom/To contradict your humanness" as synths overtake the song like an invasion; "Black Keyboard," one of several songs about children, addresses child abuse in a way that's extremely unsettling even by Xiu Xiu's standards. Despite the album's grimness, Xiu Xiu leaves some room for hope with an inspired cover of "Under Pressure," with Michael Gira playing David Bowie to Stewart's Freddie Mercury. Their version is faithful enough to sing along to, and has that unmistakable bassline, but the atonal brass adds more tension and urgency. It's a call to arms, especially in the face of all of the pain outlined in the rest of the album. Xiu Xiu's unswerving intensity is admirable, but it can be a lot to take -- then again, they probably scared away the faint-hearted years ago. Nobody else sounds like Xiu Xiu, and they've made themselves even more singular on this album.
Women as Lovers
[Kill Rock Stars; 2008]
Art-making involves getting what's inside on the outside, but usually it passes through a sterilizing filter first. But with Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart everything spills out unmediated and mucky. To put a fine point on it, on Women as Lovers' "Black Keyboard", over a serpentine acoustic guitar and synth dirge, Stewart sings, "Why would a mother say such things/ Why add tongue to a kiss goodnight?" That line is an attack against commonly held virtues of understatement and discretion, and Stewart's willingness to revolt audiences with squeamish personal details that make him seem more scarily fucked-up than sensitive or emotionally open is what makes his music unique. His art seems to be more about who he is than who he'd like to be, and it's the tension between the mores of taste and Stewart's honesty that brings us back, despite ourselves, time and again.
And, of course, the music itself, a nebulous but forceful concoction of sopping wet harpsichords, detonating percussion, submerged rock, atonal scaffolding, and unhinged electro-pop. Recent Xiu Xiu albums have been less likely to make me feel nauseous than Fabulous Muscles and its forebears, and I figured I'd just gotten acclimated to their approach. But the rawness of Women as Lovers indicates that maybe, for awhile, they'd gotten acclimated to it themselves. The Air Force found Xiu Xiu in full-bore confessional mode, yet it was so mannered that the confessionals lost their seamy edge and verged on pure aesthetics. "Buzz Saw" and "Boy Soprano", great songs both, were uncommonly buttoned-down for Xiu Xiu, and "Hello from Eau Claire" was almost a Moldy Peaches song. But where Air Force made venting seem rather academic, Women as Lovers is frantic and wild, with swatches of noise skidding around and Stewart's voice quivering on the edge of a panic attack-- even in the whispery sections.
In this light, "Under Pressure" is an apt cover choice, as the whole album conveys the sense of something about to boil over. With homely, impassioned vocals by Michael Gira, and the song's slick iconic bassline contrasted by a ragged interpretation of its arrangement, it takes on an air of desperation. Xiu Xiu's music is all about discomfort, but Stewart and co. have become quite comfortable in this conceptual space, and are able to inhabit it like painters making wild, broad smears that intuitively cohere into a look that is distinctly theirs.
On "I Do What I Want, When I Want", a pummeling post-punk groove dressed up with strident synth peals and pitched percussion, Stewart sounds direly imperiled, especially when the free-jazz horns start ripping through the already-claustrophobic mix. "In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall" is an apocalyptic atonal composition with a driving backbeat, and Stewart commands it masterfully, his voice sometimes climbing the slope of the wreckage, sometimes punching in abruptly at its screaming peaks. "No Friend Oh!" thrums like an engine, with anxious flurries of touch-tone synth and manic brass. The quieter compositions offer no relief from the mounting sense of impending catastrophe. "Guantanamo Canto" smears bending chimes, headachy percussion, loony-bin whistles, and allegorical sirens across a disorienting blankness, as Stewart says it plain: "My country needs its freedom/ To contradict your humanness." The Air Force gave us Xiu Xiu as a crystallized concept, but Women as Lovers sounds no more conceptual than a spurting artery. On "F.T.W.", a clicky acoustic ballad that eventually erupts into a squeaking-helium hell of noise, Stewart whimpers, "Am I all right? Do I look all right?" He doesn't, and one feels for him, although maybe there's some small solace in that fact that as a musician, not-all-right is his best look.
-Brian Howe, January 30, 2008