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Xiu Xiu

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Year Title Rating
2002 Knife Play 8/10
2002 >>Chapel of the Chimes .../...
2003 A Promise 9/10
2004 Fabulous Muscles 7.5/10
2005 La Forêt 7/10
2006 The Air Force 5.5/10
2008 >>Women as Lovers .../...
2010 Dear God, I Hate Myself 5.5/10
2012 >>Always .../...
2014 Angel Guts: Red Classroom 7/10
2016 Xiu Xiu & Merzbow - Merxiu 6/10
2016 Plays the Music of Twin Peaks 6.5/10
2017 Forget 6.5/10
2019 Girl with Basket of Fruit 7/10

Review last updated: October 10, 2020


Xiu Xiu is like the elephant in the room. It's a whole lot of family secrets, accusations of abuse, and details of trauma, over Thanksgiving dinner, with grandma and Aunt Sally and the kids. Decades' worth of pain and terrible feelings bottled up, decades' worth of untreated mental illness. Xiu Xiu is like when you're in middle school and you go over to your poor-but-otherwise-nice friend's house to eat KFC, and you see their dad beating the shit out of their mom in a drunken rage, in front of the kids' friends even. Then your friend breaks down in front of you and you don't even talk to them anymore. That's the effect Xiu Xiu has on people. This is not "music" in the way people depend on music to spice up boring activities. This is a high-stakes emotional drama with many characters, conflicts, catastrophes, and even resolutions.

It took me a long time to truly appreciate this band. At first, I just thought they were this weird, quiet, experimental thing. I listened to A Promise over and over in the early 2010s trying to "get it", and it never clicked. I would put it on my list, but near the bottom. It took me probably 10 or 20 listens and several years to realize that the album is a postmodern masterpiece, a deeply intimate sleepover confessional, a suicide note that was ripped up and burned before it could be read. The music itself is very abrasive, intimidating, difficult, and sometimes inaccessible. A Promise featured sparse arrangements of muted guitars, digitized drums, and erratic synthesizer. Their new music is much more successful and accessible than their first albums. Apparently the Promise is the promise Jamie Stewart made to his mother, not to kill himself, that's where you get the "Don't worry Mom".

If you listen a few Xiu Xiu albums, and "approach" them (that is to say ensure you get the most out of them), you will be presented with a lot of really fucked up subject matter: you will be whispered to and screamed at by Jamie Stewart, and you will either relate to it completely, or you will think it's the weirdest shit, unpleasant, and too abusive to enjoy. A lot of these songs, and sometimes whole albums, are about self-harm, rape, sexual assault, abuse (both witnessing abuse inflicted on others, and receiving it yourself), suicide, mental illness, cross-dressing/LGBTQ issues, AIDS, and the whole spectrum of shit in between. If you think I am making this up, I can give you specific examples. "Hives Hives" from their first one. "Sad Pony Guerilla Girl" from the second. Unfortunately, I can relate to many of these themes. It's easily possible to listen to a complete Xiu Xiu album without picking up on much of this, though, since a lot of the lyrics are too quiet to make out (when they're not being shouted and screamed). But if you realize what the lyrics are, maybe look them up, and understand what these nervously-assembled electro-rock collages represent, you will realize that Xiu Xiu is a life preserver for those going through indescribable amounts of pain and trauma.

It's a pill and you have to take it

It's a pill that you've got to take

I won't rest until you take it

My behind is a beehive

There's a buzz in my backside

And I won't rest while you break my will

"I Luv the Valley, Oh!", their most famous song

Really the whole of Fabulous Muscles is about surviving rape, and living with the subsequent traumatic stress disorder. That album, their most successful, goes through many different moods and textures, and has a remarkable ability to make fun, dancey songs about terrible things, and dreary, quiet songs about almost happy things. It is easily the most conventional and "rock"-oriented of their body of work.

What amazes me about Knife Play is how atmospheric it is, how it's one of the best albums I've ever heard, and it's this band's little-known debut. It blends the baroque elements of saxophone, trumpets, pots-and-pans percussion, and even cello, with intense noise squeals, droning guitars, and A.D.H.D. drums. I have once heard it described as an oil painting, and I've never forgotten that description of it. Unlike A Promise which is largely about suicide, and Fabulous Muscles which is about sexual assault, Knife Play, like the name suggests, is largely about self-harm. In my opinion, these are their three best albums, and nothing else in their discography even comes close. This band suffered the same fate as their peers Animal Collective, and their elders Residents and Pink Floyd: only the first few albums are worth bothering with. This is not to say their other albums are bad, but Xiu Xiu's first three are immensely important to me. I definitely think Xiu Xiu will become more and more appreciated over time. It's not like these serious human traumas are going to stop anytime soon.

I once saw Jamie Stewart on the street in St. Louis while me and my homeboys were waiting to see Xiu Xiu and Swans. Despite being billed as Xiu Xiu, it ended up being Jamie Stewart (I did not really know who he was at the time) doing a solo noise set. And then 2014 era To Be Kind Swans. My friend David told me "That guy smells like he had a lot of sex".