One of the last decade’s most prolific and hard-working bands, Jamie Stewart’s Xiu Xiu have put up with more line-up changes, personal tragedies and just, well, stuff in the six or so years of their existence that they really should be in line for the indie world’s equivalent of a Purple Heart.
They’re still here, thankfully, and Xiu Xiu’s sixth album Women As Lovers sees them achieving a kind of stability with the addition of Devin Hoff on bass to the core of Stewart, his multi-instrumentalist cousin Caralee McElroy and blindingly talented percussionist Ches Smith. Don’t, however, be fooled into thinking that this new lineup somehow signifies that their musical travels are over; Xiu Xiu have always managed to find a way to wriggle out of any pigeonholes that they’ve been placed into in the past.
Having said that, the albums’s first track, I Do What I Want When I Want, is a real curveball. Featuring one of Stewart’s most tender and straightforward lyrics, an elastic band bass-line that seems to have escaped from The Postal Service and McElroy’s breathy backing vocals, it’s an ambiguous start – have Xiu Xiu done what they’ve always threatened to do, and made a straightforward pop song?
Maybe. Maybe not. I didn’t mention the free jazz-esque saxophone solo, the musique concrete squalls and shatters, or even the demented kazoo parping – rest assured folks, Terry Wogan will not be playlisting this one anytime soon. Nevertheless, it’s positively Beatlesesque when placed against a canon as uncompromising as Xiu Xiu’s.
After such an uncharacteristically easy start, the rest of the album plays like a time travel trip, covering musical ground already visited by Xiu Xiu’s previous albums. If you’ve never experienced the band before, this makes it the ideal place to start, especially due to the sympathetic production by Deerhoof‘s drummer Greg Saunier. While each previous Xiu Xiu album has managed to polarise popular opinion in a manner usually restricted to discussions of politics, religion, or open-source software, Women As Lovers feels more like a consolidation of the disparate musical and lyrical themes that have haunted Stewart since 2002’s Knife Play.
It’s interesting to speculate how much of this might be the influence of Saunier, as Deerhoof and Xiu Xiu have always shared more than just geography; one of Women As Lover’s most musically up-beat tracks No Friend Oh! flirts with prog and Krautrock in the same manner as Deerhoof’s Milk Man. But while the two groups may share a similarly cavalier approach to the rules of indie-pop, ultimately their approaches are poles apart; Deerhoof may manage to capture the joy of childish musical experimentation, but Xiu are their older and none-the-wiser siblings, picking up the menagerie of instruments off the floor when Deerhoof are safely tucked up in bed.
And, as might be expected from an album that shares a title with a book by controversial Austrian Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, Women As Lovers covers some harrowing lyrical ground. Stewart’s always been someone who’s unlikely to shy away deeply distressing images, and while Women… does include songs about the world beyond the bedroom such as Guantanamo Canto, it’s at its most queasily confident when focusing on images as raw as a t-bone at a wet BBQ. In a contrary fashion, it’s often the more musically coherent songs that contain the most extreme stings; Black Keyboard’s pretty finger-picked melodies contrast with its focus on verbal and physical domestic abuse.
Like fellow Bay Area dweller Mark Eitzel of American Music Club, Stewart shares a lack of self-consciousness when it comes to putting aspects of their lives into pop songs. But whereas Eitzel excels in making the personal universal, it’s Xiu Xiu’s strength – as well as their weakness – to assault the listener with specificity, giving Women… a deeply voyeuristic sheen that can detract from the often thrilling musical invention at work here.