Xiu Xiu Remixed and Covered

[5RC; 2007]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: meta-goth, techno pop, folk, emo not emo, experimental rock
Others: This Song Is A Mess But So Am I, Jana Hunter, Dead Science, Disco Inferno, Antony & The Johnsons, Scott Walker, CocoRosie

It's hard not to be wary of these sorts of releases, especially ones this sprawling. Smells like product. Xiu Xiu, however, have been so steady since their early-2000 inception that perhaps they deserve a stand-back-and-take-stock kind of release. And, as it turns out, the reinterpretations on display here are anything but obligatory (though the same can't be said for the remixes). Rather than just a stop-gap, keep-the-ball-rolling hodge-podge, these 18 tracks can serve as a potent reminder of what an indelible songwriting talent Jamie Stewart is. The guy's made some immensely memorable tunes -- and they're songs that should stand up against the fickle favors of time. Perhaps people grow weary of hype or just succumb to trendiness, but some of the best music of recent years is getting drowned out by a steady stream of "next big thing" pronouncements. Xiu Xiu is one of the best, and the inspired takes on this release manage to back up that claim.

Naturally, the tracks that've had a chance to age awhile make more convincing tributes. For all I know, the selections from The Air Force were merely hired-out gigs to promote the new album. Sadly, not many Knife Play tunes made it on here. I think Xiu Xiu's debut album has held up well as their best effort. Its clanging skree is still as bracing as it ever was. Whether any of these songs were approached as intellectual challenges or loving appropriations is anybody's guess. Nonetheless, the covers are well-realized tunes that feel as fresh as they do familiar.

For a prime example, we've got Sunset Rubdown's "Apistat Commander." Even though the singer mimics Stewart's vocals pretty closely, the tune's anthemic progression is so gorgeously drifted as to make the original seem almost anemic by comparison. It's so blissfully bittersweet that it makes me want to give Sunset Rubdown another listen. I swear Marissa Nadler's "Clowne Towne" take -- and normally, I wouldn't go for this sort of thing -- manages to give the tune a new kind of weight through sheer effervescence. Next to Her Space Holiday's "I Luv the Valley" and Banhart's previously released "Support Our Troops," it's the collection's most conventional take on music that is as merciless as it is melodic. The Her Space Holiday cover is fairly lame, and Devendra's is very Devendra. But Nadler -- she seems to have given us something as overwhelmingly lovely as Oxbow's "Saturn" is just plain overwhelming.

The only artist that opts to leave the vocals out is Good for Cows, with their "Sad Pony Guerilla Girl" cover. It's an odd choice, since the original contains some of Stewart's best vocals. Good for Cows' version is rustic and drifting, with the infectious main melody the only recognizable trait. It would be a great meandering interlude were it not followed by one of the more leaden tracks on the covers disc; Kid 606 doing anything but a remix doesn't make much sense anyway.

Although each track is interesting for a Xiu Xiu fan to explore, the strongest ones are the first five covers. As for the remixes disc, they definitely didn't put their best foot forward. Remixes work best when they take mediocre-to-lackluster songs and make them stronger -- whereas covers are usually labors of love for the source material, remixes are like cold-stance renovations, structural challenges rather than personalized readings. I was interested to see if The Air Force's glaring clunker "Hello From Eau Claire" would be improved at all. Unfortunately, Gold Chains' throbbing dance beat can't save dumbly sung lines like "I can buy my own ceramics" from making you want to skip ahead. Thankfully, Xiu Xiu's own revamping of their fine Joy Division cover from Chapel of Chimes obliterates this stale aftertaste. It's also dance-beat-driven, but in a significantly more arresting fashion. Knife Play's "Over Over" already had a pretty strong techno vibe to it, but Son takes it one further, streamlining it to a steady, danceable pulse. The way it works is kinda rudimentary, but there's no need to tinker too much with a song as good as this.

A lot of the tunes on the remix disc seem kind of dry, in fact. Perhaps that's the point, but nonetheless, remixing seems like a tricky business. Grouper's take on "Tonite and Today" (though it may as well just be a spare tunnel reverb/haunted moan drone laid over the original recording) takes an already sparse track and makes it even slighter. It's exceptional in that it doesn't go crazy with the source material, only tweaking it slightly in a way that casts the Knife Play closer in a new light. Much like the Aphex Twin track "At The Heart of It All" from Nine Inch Nails' Further Down the Spiral EP, To Live And Shave In LA's "The Air Force" remix just sounds like a To Live And Shave noise collage with Xiu Xiu-type sounds flying around; but, whereas the Aphex Twin track was memorable, this thing is most definitely not, rounding out a rather workmanlike batch of remixes.

In the end, I can only half-recommend this overstuffed symposium. This isn't an essential purchase by any stretch, but a good deal of it is worth hearing just the same. This original and enduring band's been prolific as hell, and I can only hope this retrospective-tinged outing is a reflection of that, rather than the sign of a looming end for Xiu Xiu.

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