Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Xiu Xiu - Women As Lovers (2008)

4.0 ★/8.0 - 8.9

There's something to be said for an artist like Jamie Stewart, who, with his twisted Ian Curtis-meets-Conor Oberst constitution, has so boldly extracted the essence of manic depression for 5 albums of cacophony and disturbing avant-pop, without ever bothering to make it more accessible for his listeners. But the reason Women As Lovers succeeds more than any other Xiu Xiu album, is because of it's willingness to open up. Whereas their last two albums focused on distancing it's emotions from the listener through avant touches, Women As Lovers delivers upon the approachable form that the seamlessly consolidated Fabulous Muscles promised. Don't get me wrong, the content itself is still roughly disturbing - just look at the album artwork, which appears to be a naked child-form roughly bound by rope and tourniquet wire. And then there's the heart breaking center of the album, "Black Keyboard" and "Master of the Bump" - two of Stewart's signature acoustic treks into his dark and troubled psyche, enhanced by weary and unflinching lines like "why would mother say such things, why add tongue to her kiss goodnight" and "a child is nothing without hate". But for music that's so blatantly driven by intensity and trauma, the band sounds they're having a ton of fun. The "doo doo doo" yelps in the background of lead single, "I Do What I Want When I Want" make what's already a shambling recording feel even more like a children's recess project. "No Friend Oh!", the album's most immediately catchy song, sounds positively triumphant with the chorus' blaring horn section. And even though you'd expect the end result of Jamie Stewart handling any song with intentions as melodramatic as Queen's "Under Pressure" to be a total depress-fest, what's amazing is how loosely the band plays with it, delightfully reassembling it with a revitalized madhouse arrangement that puts to shame the more predictable versions that have popped up lately (My Chemical Romance and The Used, I'm looking at you). Jamie Stewart's barely controllable melodramatic shouts, Caralee McElroy's gentle whispers and Michael Gira's powerful sing-speaking all take turns, powered by free-jazz dissonance, and a wall of pretty guitars.

What Women As Lovers ultimately does for Xiu Xiu is shed the off-the-walls variety of all their other albums in exchange for a single, tangible, down-to-earth face. Throughout the album there's a consistent sound: a steadily tense, post-punk influenced, rhythmic section, rollicking bass and startlingly violent percussion clashing savagely with Stewart's unstable whimpers, random electro-noise and acoustic meanderings. This new found focus, looseness and attention to jamming (no matter how off-key it may be) all add up to make Xiu Xiu finally sound like a coherent and widely listenable band, rather than a left-of-field recording project. For that, it's undoubtedly one of their best albums to date.

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