The problem with Xiu Xiu is that no one ever takes me seriously when I play one of their songs. Some kind of question like “What the hell is this?” or snickering that then fades into nervous laughter when they realize I am being serious. And then there’s usually some snarky remark alluding to Conor Oberst. But I wouldn’t—and won’t—go there.
The problem with Xiu Xiu, you see, is also what I love about them: listening to a Xiu Xiu record is like some twisted voyeuristic experience, offering you admission into the unsettling thoughts of songwriter and front man Jamie Stewart. It’s kind of like those Christian Children’s Fund infomercials on television that only air on Sunday afternoons—the ones with the old bearded guy narrating while images of glassy-eyed impoverished children with famine-inflated bellies flash on your screen. It’s terrible to watch, but for some reason, you just can’t tear yourself away.
Stewart has the same captivating effect, thanks to his gut-wrenching, quivering voice: whispering, screaming and singing dripping with twinges of self-deprecation, interrupted by sudden swelling crescendos of shrieks and wails that repeatedly stab through your consciousness: “Dad, what was Nigel supposed to do with your body?/A life that I will never understand/Whose false teeth were gently pushed back into your mouth by your daughter’s husband/What am I supposed to do with this?” he murmurs in between shoegazer distortion and droning guitar on “Mike,” a track off 2004’s Fabulous Muscles.
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And that’s where things get difficult: you either admire Stewart’s remarkable ability to pen seemingly unstructured and deliciously creepy “art rock” or brush Xiu Xiu off as yet another theatrical ploy to appeal to Generation Saddle Creek. It’s the moment where you either decide to embrace the music or run far, far, far away from it. Whichever; it’s this kind of stuff that makes you really glad you don’t have to deal with the issues Stewart has.
After the unusual pseudo-pop sound of Fabulous Muscles, Xiu Xiu’s fourth full-length album, La Fort, was a return to the familiar minimalism of previous records. And Life and Live, just released in October, is a collection of live acoustic performances, some gathered from an overseas tour with folk favorite Devendra Banhart (with whom Xiu Xiu just released a 7” split this past summer), that seems to take the awkwardly candid signature Xiu Xiu sound one step further in a direction that many audiences just can’t follow.
So somewhere between the tracks addressing homosexual vampire incest (“Brian, tender drops of blood run run run I’m thinking of you/How far does your brother go with you?”) and threats of slicing someone’s forehead open with a roofing shingle, a pang of sincerity in Xiu Xiu’s music still calls out to me. And I’m not sure if that’s my problem or theirs.
Xiu Xiu, The Dead Science and more at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona; www.theglasshouse.us. Wed., 7:30 p.m. $10. ?All ages.