Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Band

Tired of boring pop rock? Looking for a little more edge to that standard verse-chorus-verse sound? Xiu Xiu might be the answer for you. After an uncharacteristic year off from making music since 2006’s majestic ‘The Air Force,’ Xiu Xiu returns to the music scene with ‘Women as Lovers.’ While the band has always had its share of off-the-wall experimentation, Xiu Xiu’s music is still very appealing, and ‘Women as Lovers’ might actually be their most accessible album to date.
The album opener, aptly titled ‘I Do What I Want, When I Want,’ starts off on a very mellow note, as lead vocalist Jamie Stewart doesn’t go beyond the first notch with his versatile voice. The song not only opens the album very well, but is a very nice introductory song to new Xiu Xiu listeners, a soothing ballad that has a hint of twisted instrumentation to end it.
After the opening number, Stewart really lets loose. ‘In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall’ finds Stewart in between an antsy agitation and sly reflection, and the subtle build up at the end is reminiscent of ‘Bishop, CA,’ a high point on the band’s last album. ‘Guantanamo Canto’ is equipped with the standard frustrated Stewart rant, ‘You’ll never know how you’ve made us safe / And your son grows to kill us all / We say thank your complicity / Your daughter grows to kill us all / And we say thanks to ease our shame.’
However, the one hiccup on the album might be the peculiar cover of Queen’s ‘Under Pressure,’ where Stewart seems to force the issue a bit with his screams. It’s a song interesting enough to hear once, but one that will pale in comparison to the better tracks on the record.
If Stewart’s schizophrenic voice isn’t enough to keep you interested, then the instruments backing him should grab your ears. In the middle of ‘F.T.W,’ Xiu Xiu gives a take of its unique jagged soft-loud dynamic while being able to turn around and close the song with a soft guitar. ‘No Friend Oh!’ is definitely a highlight on the album, as the marching drumbeat is complemented by a hint of piano, and then triumphant horns during the chorus.
‘Black Keyboard’ finds Stewart as a delicate storyteller, and he’s always one to push the envelope. The disturbing undertones provide a look into a mind of an abused child. ‘Master of the Bump’ nearly feels like a lo-fi version of the title track off the band’s breakthrough, ‘Fabulous Muscles.’
A slow guitar that plucks through its chords and guides Stewart’s trembling voice. Stewart seems revved up enough to swing the pace of this classic swooner when he ends with ‘But I’m not your timeless one and only,’ but instead the song ends with a whimper and a couple of held distorted notes. This leaves the listener yearning, but that is what the band wants.
After a couple of brooders, ‘You Are Pregnant You, You Are Dead,’ pushes through with a constant clickity-clack in the drums that remains constant through the track. ‘Child at Arms’ comes fast and heavy and ends in the same manner, while digressing a bit in between. ‘Puff and Bunny’ is considerably low-key, but it’s filled with its share of curious random shifts. ‘White Nerd’ utilizes Stewart’s voice shifts, and those shifts capture the irate disappointment he expresses throughout the song.
The album closes with ‘Gayle Lynn,’ one of the more gentle songs in Xiu Xiu’s discography. The song rarely breaks into any dissonance, and features beautiful vocals in the chorus that shine through the horns and synth that complement them well.
‘Women as Lovers’ kicks off 2008 with one of the most unique bands in music today returning to form. Despite its love of breaking the norms of musical structure, there’s a lot here that is instantly loveable.
After all these years, it has found a great balance between satisfying its penchant for experimentation, crafting well-thought-out pop songs, and giving their all a distinct sound that is unmistakable. The band can feel challenging at times, but the reward is well worth it.