When I was younger, I often worried about whether the music I enjoyed was created by people sincerely vested in their work. Call me naïve, but I couldn't stand the idea of artistic media being exploited for material gains. As follows, I idolized the stubborn, mad eccentric who seemed to create music because he psychologically depended on that inimitable act of creation.
Although I'm now convinced that this tendency of mine was both somewhat misled and a harbinger of my current neuroses, I still have a certain penchant for music that is made with brutally honest sincerity. Whereas a lot of indie and emo acts tend to exploit this idea of sincerity, often sacrificing any sort of intellectual originality or artistry in order to appear less pretentious, Xiu Xiu successfully fuses together intelligence and sincerity in the creation of their powerful musical tempests.
Xiu Xiu's intricate music is very confrontational though. As demonstrated by last year's Fabulous Muscles, it walks the line between challenging and pleasing, between experimental and pop, leaning in both cases towards the former. Their songs are immediately harsh, graphic, and overwhelming, and their albums generally sound like aural schizophrenia in a 1950s mental hospital sense: maybe the product of too much electroshock therapy. Xiu Xiu's appeal, however, depends on a certain amount of devastation, both in lyrical content and musical effect. Their music is, in short, a potent mixture of intellect and sincerity pushed to the extremes of acceptability.
I saw Xiu Xiu live for the first time in a ballet studio. I loved it. Frontman Jamie Stewart's remarkable voice, which alternates without any sort of warning between loving cooing and frustrated shrieking, was even more mesmerizing in concert than on record; and the powerful performance felt traumatic, challenging, and strangely enjoyable. Cathartic.
The most singular moment of the concert in my mind, however, was when Jamie Stewart, while appearing palpably pissed off, quietly stopped the performance to have a loud-mouthed drunkard in the audience silenced. Although from an outsider's perspective this move might not seem all that momentous, it was huge for me. This guy cared about his music and his audience. He was not going to have his performance disrespected if he could help it, and in fact, as I later found out, the last time Xiu Xiu had stopped in Austin to play at a more traditional venue, they actually had to deal with lit cigarettes being thrown at them during their performance. Thus, the ballet studio.
Life and Live is a compilation of tracks culled from Stewart's solo tours, and the album, much unlike the Xiu Xiu studio albums, consists of minimal instrumentation. Most of the tracks feature merely Stewart singing with his acoustic guitar. Since the band's ruthlessly intimate aesthetic is largely the product of Stewart's multifaceted voice, the simplicity of the album, in fact, may be the album's greatest contribution to the Xiu Xiu canon. The confrontational sincerity and keen brilliance of this music is presented with an authoritative restraint that is rather lacking on Xiu Xiu studio albums. The music's power is still there, but the restraint is so manifest that the music becomes, in a sense, more affecting. Like at the ballet studio in Austin, Stewart's commitment to his music and to its importance becomes tangible, but his restraint, in my opinion, particularly increases the intensity of the music or at least shifts the direction of that blistering intensity to a more intimately jarring dimension.
With the exception of "Thanks Japan!"'s unnecessary chatter and perhaps "Jennifer Lopez"'s oppressive noise, every detail is engaging in this rather brilliant album. To those of you who like Xiu Xiu, the restraint of these live performances will absorb you, and to those of you who don't know Xiu Xiu, the album will serve as a great stepping stone into their realm of experimental pop music. Those who don't like Xiu Xiu will probably continue to dislike Xiu Xiu, but Life and Live might draw you in if only because there is simply so much less to cope with on these acoustic tracks.
1. 20, 000 Deaths for Eidelyn Gonzales, 20, 000 Deaths for Jamie Peterson
2. Sad Redux-O-Grapher
3. King Earth, King Earth
4. I Broke Up
5. Thanks Japan!
6. Sad Pony Guerilla Girl
8. Jennifer Lopez
9. 20, 000 Deaths for Eidelyn Gonzales, 20, 000 Deaths for Jamie Peterson
11. Dr. Troll
12. Brooklyn Dodgers
13. Nieces Pieces
15. I Broke Up