Xiu Xiu is like modern art in musical form: Either you think you get it and love it or you’re baffled by what anyone sees in it. Both sides are utterly convinced of the idiocy of the other side, why they can/can’t see the genius/garbage of Xiu Xiu, but you can be sure that neither the twain shall meet. Now, if you’re wondering where I fall on the ol’ Xiu Xiu spectrum, you could take a gander at the rating for their latest, Women as Lovers, up in the corner or remember what I thought about La Foret and The Air Force. In other words, Xiu Xiu are one of the best acts in music today.
2007 was the first year in a while that there was actually no new Xiu Xiu material, just the filler of a remix/cover disc (which, sadly did tide me over in my Xiu Xiu fix). Luckily, Jamie Stewart waited a whole three weeks in 2008 before giving us Women as Lovers, and what we get is an album that is more fractured and more challenging than The Air Force, but at the same time, more satisfying.
And if you’re wondering what I mean by that, look no further than “I Do What I Want, When I Want,” the opening track on Women as Lovers. The song is, simultaneously ridiculously catchy and caustic, going from the chirps and whirs of xylophones to what might be a medieval blacksmith shop. Sure, incongruous, but somehow it all distills into a working unit. This same dichotomy is heard on “No Friend Oh!” where you can feel a pop song struggling to break free but the demons that haunt Xiu Xiu keep it at bay. “Puff and Bunny” and “White Nerd” are most similar to tracks like “Boy Soprano,” where the song itself feels broken yet you can’t turn away. “White Nerd” is especially scathing, somehow bringing up the last of the Modoc Indians, Percocet and lava flows in a single verse.
Xiu Xiu wants you to feel like you’re being dragged into their personal struggles, and tracks like “In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall” do just that. The howled, pained vocals and anarchistic rhythms are juxtaposed by gentle verses where Stewart sounds like he might break down in front of you. “Guantanamo Canto,” as the name implies, is not an uplifting piece and much in the same vein as Xiu Xiu’s “Support Our Troops Oh!,” it has a direct message. Meanwhile, “You are Pregnant, You are Dead,” beyond the wholly overdramatic title, is an operatic piece of noise rock.
The band even tackles much more straightforward song structure on “F.T.W.” where we find Xiu Xiu bordering on folk-rock until the song collapses into a confessional. However, the most accessible song on Women as Lovers, and possibly the most accessible Xiu Xiu song ever, is the cover of Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Now, “Under Pressure” is one of my top 10 favorite songs, so you would have to do something pretty special for it to compete with the original, and well, Xiu Xiu doesn’t really do that. Michael Gira takes on the role of David Bowie and Jamie Stewart does a remarkable Freddie Mercury, but it is almost too straight a retelling of the song to be compelling in the frenzy of Women as Lovers. It just doesn’t have the same effect as other Xiu Xiu covers like “Ceremony,” but heck, it is “Under Pressure”; as long as you’re not Vanilla Ice, you’re not going to get too lost.
Women as Lovers just extends Xiu Xiu’s winning streak (or losing streak, depending on who you are). It not only challenges the listener to listen to music that is not conventional, but also does it in a way that does not truly abandon musical sensibilities. Sure, that sort of sounds like trying to have your modern rock cake and eating it, too, and, well, I guess that is exactly what I’m trying to do. Xiu Xiu just has such a visceral presence that it is impossible not to pay attention, either in horror or awe.