Blood, chocolate, and moral decadence in the weirdness of Xiu Xiu
MUSIC Since Xiu Xiu's Fabulous Muscles came out six years ago, the indie press circuit has settled in to give the group a long run of 4-or-5-star, 7.5-to-10-point, and good-to-very-good ratings. It's the 2000s' equivalent of 1970s major label benign neglect, which allowed nominally successful artists to go weird in plain sight.
Xiu Xiu has never not been weird, but it's a deep and personally honest weirdness that, while acknowledged, is rarely unpacked. Critically, it simply has room to exist, but listening to fans, it seems like this band could save your life. Though they are clearly pop something band leader Jamie Stewart insists on dusting off the surface reveals a network of underground reference points that actually have the power to shock the middle class.
If those terms underground, middle class seem old-fashioned, that's because they have the potential to describe life as it's lived, something Xiu Xiu is clearly going for. These terms might be misapplied to indie rock, but Xiu Xiu's decadence is a moral one beneath the veneer of self-indulgence. Bright red stickers on Xiu Xiu jewel cases contain descriptions of the charitable organizations that the band contributes part of the profits to, not critical plaudits.
Though Xiu Xiu's personnel fluctuates, Stewart works best with a female counterpoint. Romantic partner Angela Seo has stepped up as muse and collaborator on the band's latest record, Dear God, I Hate Myself (Kill Rock Stars). Inside, reference points speak not just to Stewart's personal obsessions and Xiu Xiu is nothing if not an intensely personal project but also reveal what's really at stake in songs that can seem comically self-loathing and also authentically therapeutic.
As with previous releases, everything that happens on Dear God, I Hate Myself can be unpacked from its poppiest song. To my ears, that's "Chocolate Makes You Happy." It has many of the elements that make up the Xiu Xiu profile: there's an outsize chorus, a combination of sturdy electronic beats and destabilizing live percussion, and lyrics that are simultaneously moving and outrageous. Seven albums in, Stewart's breathy voice is still pushing lyrics like "Chocolate makes you happy/As you deign to sing along/When you thrust your fingers down your throat/And wash away what's wrong," then pivoting seconds later to deliver something like "out of your mind with whoreishness, incredibly young, incredibly filthy."
Musically, Stewart is sticking with the influences he named years ago: Henry Cowell's dissonant tone clusters and bisexuality, the Cure's bedroom catharsis and ill-managed longing, the guilelessness of video game music. Equally important, though, are writers like Dennis Cooper and Peter Sotos, gay writers often categorized as "transgressive" for their fiction's (though Sotos' writing takes the form of metareportage of pedophilic crime) interest in distinguishing between fantasy and reality. The impulse seems like a moral one; it's how they draw that line that gets attention. Sotos is certainly the more underground of the two press photos of an earlier lineup had Xiu Xiu's faces partially obscured by books, including Sotos' 2000 Index and his way of presenting the intolerable has a few less narrative safe-words than Cooper's.
The reason Xiu Xiu exists, as Stewart has written on the band's blog, is to be "blunt about awful shit" awful shit that Stewart or his loved ones have experienced. The personal register distinguishes it from Sotos' newsprint-stained writings, but both have a narrative technique easily mistaken for no technique, a kind of narrative edge-play. What makes the band so compelling and relevant and seemingly ill-understood is that they take the plunge into being ridiculous, outrageous, and over-the-top labeling them "confessional" is selling them seriously short. Lyrics and music put the listener close to soiled underwear and civilian corpses, atrocities that take place in the family den or in Fallujah.
Talking openly and achingly about things painfully hidden acknowledges the manipulation and artifice of pop music and, in doing so, puts more faith in its power. Xiu Xiu inspires testimonials because their music creates a place for collective grief. As a result, their music's catharsis is a personal and political one. And though not every listener has a need for it, in doing what it does naturally, the band takes indie rock snake oil and turns it into chocolate.
With tUnE-YaRdS and Noveller
Sat/20, 10 p.m., $12
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF