Xiu Xiu
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY

Xiu Xiu aren’t for everyone, and that’s nothing new. But their latest album, Women As Lovers (Kill Rock Stars), is probably their strangest and most off-putting yet. It’s packed with dark, perverse childhood sexual imagery and even alludes to incest. A few months ago, it racked up a sheaf of ambiguous reviews that basically amounted to, “Well, it’s Xiu Xiu, so it must be good, but for my part, I’m weirded out.” People knew it was good, but some measure of disgust was preventing them from truly engaging with it on its own terms. But that utter awkwardness makes it one of this year’s most challenging albums to date, and every listen has revealed something new, fascinating, and, yes, frightening, too. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t always fun, either, but this is music as art, kids. We ain’t just talkin’ about the shit you can dance to.

The seriousness is just as palpable live. Xiu Xiu always form a little box of bizarre instruments, pushed into the center of the stage, that sort of isolates them throughout the show. There’s a skeletal-looking electric, upright bass in one corner, an enormous cymbal, and some gongs attached to the drum kit, a xylophone, and a flute that make brief appearances. Keyboards of all kinds are everywhere.

The entire show revolves around Jamie Stewart, who says almost nothing to the audience between songs. Someone yells, “Good job, guys!” and gets not even the slightest hint of a response. But when he sings, it’s like he has the only vocal role in the kind of opera in which everyone dies at the end. He’s a consummate performer and a loose cannon at the same time. Stewart can be violent, childlike, or completely spastic.

Equally changeable and unpredictable is Xiu Xiu’s sound. At one moment, they’re all discord, feedback, and the scream of castrated brass instruments; the next, they lay down the hottest rock riff you’ve ever heard. You only feel the transition if they want you to. They’re the horror movie and its soundtrack.

And just because the band members didn’t speak to the crowd, it doesn’t mean they failed to connect. Looking down from the balcony, I saw people jumping up and down, hugging each other, even crying. I don’t think Vampire Weekend is ever going to move anyone to tears, but I seem to remember the vast majority of their reviews being overwhelmingly positive. Coincidence?

[Photo: Sean Ruch]

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