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Xiu Xiu as lovers

The Oakland trio’s latest album takes what’s familiar and skews it enough to be interesting

Jamie Stewart didn’t exactly have an optimistic view of relationships when he started writing the material for Women as Lovers. The album takes its title from a novel by the Austrian feminist Elfriede Jelinek, the one that Stewart – frontman and lyricist behind Xiu Xiu – was reading at the time. The novel presents a fairly bleak picture of human beings. It spoke to his view that every romantic relationship has a necessarily horrible side, even though society constantly pressures people to be in one. As the album developed, life took a turn in the opposite direction: he started falling for someone, and the book became, in his own words, “a manuscript to rebel against.”

The album hits the ground running with the opening track “I do what I want, when I want,” a song with playful notes and a sinister undertone that threatens to tip the entire thing over. Against the brooding, insistent bass line punctuated with upbeat whistling and bursts of frenetic dissonant noise, Stewart comments on the mixed nature of things, the often close relationship of pain and pleasure. There is a sense of calculated restraint at the start of the song, of an underlying emotion bringing pressure to bear just below the surface.

The ambiguous interplay of contradictory emotions seems to be a leitmotif for Xiu Xiu. “Gayle Lynne,” the last song on the album, was inspired by a visit to the burial place of Stewart’s aunt, whose grave had barely been visited since she died as an infant in 1948. It was, he said, a moving experience, seeing the “little headstone as big as an encyclopedia”– and, at the same time, so morbid it was almost funny. The song itself is one of the album’s grander moments, with a trumpet that ranges from stately to slightly off-kilter, and vocals by Caralee McElroy, Stewart’s cousin and fellow band member since 2004. Her voice adds a note of innocent, sometimes haunting simplicity that contrasts with Stewart’s darker tones.

Xiu Xiu has a knack for taking what’s familiar and making it just skewed enough to be interesting. The album also includes an energetic, danceable song about nihilism, and the most tender, melancholy intoning of the words “master of the bump and master of the hustle” you may ever expect to hear.

Stewart has something of an ambivalent relationship with violence. It’s a thing that horrifies and draws him at the same time, looking at events going on in the world and being intrigued by the way it manifests itself politically, socially, and sexually. Political violence comes much more to the fore in this album than previously, with songs like “Guantanamo Canto” and “Child at Arms.”

The songs capture the pathos of politics from the persepective of the bystander – watching the news without knowing how to change the situation – as much as they comment on the events themselves. You hear eerie whistling and a military drumbeat, the sounds of people falling in line, trapped in a kind of nightmare carnival. “It’s a funny time right now,” Stewart said of the U.S. political climate. “By that I mean a horrifying, sad clown kind of funny.”

An air raid siren fades into the sounds of traffic leading into a cover of Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure,” a collaborative effort bringing together musicians from outside the band, among them Michael Gira of Swans. The cover provides some relief in the middle of the album, and was originally going to be the 14th song, “like a breath of fresh air at the end of the record,” drummer Ches Smith said.

Xiu Xiu seems to show a lot of consideration for their fans, with a range of side art projects and a frequently-updated blog full of bizarre tidbits and scenes from the road. Leading up to the release of Women as Lovers, Stewart offered to write haikus for the first several hundred fans who wrote in. He likes to think of things he would’ve liked his favorite artists to do. “If Morissey wrote me a haiku,” he said “I’d probably go out of my mind.”

They’ve also taken to jogging with their fans after shows let out, inviting anyone who’ll go with them to come along. Smith recalled one show in Texas where they ended up with a crowd of over 30 people following them, “kind of like Rocky or something.” He hopes they’ll do it again on the next tour.

While Women as Lovers might not exactly be spilling over with hope, it’s certainly brimming over with something. Maybe it’s the tension that builds between the raw, ugly stuff of life, and the difficult beauty that manages to push through. As bassist Devin Hoff reminds on Xiu Xiu’s blog, the band comes to Montreal this week on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the U.S. entry into the Iraq war. It should be an interesting show.

Xiu Xiu is playing the Sala Rossa (4848 St. Laurent) on March 19.