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Xiu Xiu - Women As Lovers Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 April 2008
ImageLoved by many and maligned by the rest, emo is the only genre classification whose main proponents deny their membership. But tight jeans and long bangs aside, emo really isn’t a form distinctive enough to be criticized at all. The genre’s most glaring excess – an emphasis on cringe-worthy melodrama and emotional overstatement often wrapped in junior high level poetry – is really a criticism that plagues every genre and most mediocre songwriters. What gets lost in the shuffle is that some songwriters – the very good ones – know how to exploit those very same lyrical devices to their favor, using naked vulnerability and blatant hyperbole to shatter moments of tranquility and make clear the depth of an emotion that would otherwise dissolve into the context of the song. Who can forget Bob Dylan singing “you’re an idiot, babe/it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” or John Lennon screeching “Mommy don’t go!/Daddy come home!” over and over? Hyperbolic but effective, those are the sort of sentiments that composure just can’t replicate. In a similar way, Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu has earned his reputation by royally losing his shit on every album he makes, writing songs about suicide, war and sex and generally disturbing anyone who will listen. To his credit, he does melodrama better than anyone else. Women As Lovers, Xiu Xiu’s sixth studio album, is no exception. Coming after 2006’s comparably focused The Air Force, Jamie Stewart and his ever-shifting group of collaborators have made another emotionally raw, sonically messy and utterly imaginative release, one that again proves Stewart’s ability to create deeply uncomfortable moments for his listeners. His favorite topics are all back on the table, from war to oppression to bad parenting, and he wastes little time tearing into them, creating a perfectly complementary backdrop of strangled electronics, simple guitar strums, swirling drums and a thicket of noisy outbursts from unknown sources. As always, whether or not it’s a deeply affecting human psychodrama or shrilly unlistenable venting is purely determined by one’s perspective.

“Why would you tell me how many times my father made you cream?” he asks dispassionately on “Black Keyboard,” his vocal carried by two finger-picked acoustic guitars and one slurring electric lead. “Be free, laugh at your son/a child is nothing without hate/be certain he feels his love is trash” he sings calmly, his ugly description of domestic strife made even more disturbingly vivid when a funeral organ enters to add depth to the already desperate ballad. “Your suicide is politics and misery/my country needs this freedom to contradict your humanness,” he croons on "Guantanamo Canto, over mechanistic thuds, marching snares and uneasy violin drones, the tension building in the song like a teapot about to explode. Still, Stewart is a master at pulling back from obvious conclusions, and the song soon dissipates into trickles of xylophone and dying siren synths. Even Stewart’s biggest choruses come with an angry aftertaste, crooning “Tommy and Danny, you can’t hold hands down your street/Who cares you’re gay/but it’s your age,” on “No Friend Oh!” while horns bleat out fuzzy notes and drums crackle and careen beside thickly distorted synths.

Of course, there are just as many moments where it’s very difficult to know exactly what Stewart is saying. “A car has killed you and your corpse has discouraged us/to never, never, never, never look up,” he croons seconds after a straightforward raft of acoustic guitar strums in, sunk under an explosion of electronic squeaks on “F.T.W.” Even stranger is “Puff and Bunny,” wherein he makes his alienation known through impenetrable musings such as “Hot pepper, hot pepper, look at me. I’m alone/ Hot pepper hot pepper, I’m single, I have no friends in my new city.” That said, throughout the album the sense of Stewart’s loneliness is palpable, with his halting, throaty coo cutting through his lyrical obfuscations and communicating a world of wounded romanticism and aching fragility.

Despite promises that Women As Lovers would be Xiu Xiu’s most accessible release, while the set of songs collected here feature moments of plaintive melodies and surging choruses, the songcraft is generally buried under layers of sonic obfuscation. Like Sufjan Stevens, Stewart has an obvious ear for complex arrangement, but he favors decidedly incompatible elements. The various melodic lines often sound as if they were dropped into the arrangement with little regard for song structure, with few songs having conventionally developed verses or choruses, resulting in vocal melodies that seem to drift around rapidly shifting sonic backdrops, never moving in easily recognizable patterns. As such, it’s an endlessly fascinating album, more enveloping and incomprehensible with every listen. Least expected is a startlingly faithful cover of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” with Stewart doing his best Bowie impersonation and Angels of Light’s Michael Gira adding menthol grit to the Freddie Mercury role. Retaining the iconic bass line and dreamy wash of guitars of the original, some free jazz sax scales are thrown in for good measure, making sure that the song is marked with a distinctly chaotic Xiu Xiu stamp.

All in all, it’s hard to deny that Women As Lovers is an album that indulges many of the sins of emo, but Xiu Xiu manages to transcend any attempts at categorization simply through the power of Stewart’s unflinching obsession with life’s most awkward moments, and his music’s disorganized intensity. Though his willingness to indulge his pop acumen wavers from album to album, his distinctive songwriting perspective cuts through whatever is the current state of his melodic predilections. In the end, Women As Lovers may not be quite as dark or quite as unsettling as previous Xiu Xiu releases, but none has been as confident or as consistent in tone. Put it on and cringe the night away.

Depending on your point of view, Women As Lovers is either a bravely unconventional release or a horribly underproduced mess. Everything is brittle and distorted – guitars, drums, synths, xylophones, vocals – and everything collapses into one massive sonic lump. The vocals are often uncomfortably high in the mix, sitting precariously on top of everything and often sounding as if they were recorded in an empty washing machine and dropped in as an afterthought. Believe it or not, this technique actually works, giving the album an immediacy that mirrors the disturbed tone of Stewart’s writing. That said, while no amount of high-end equipment will make the album sound like it was made in pristine environs, cheap speakers will only exaggerate the more tinny and abrasive textures in the mix.

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