[From Room Thirteen, February 3, 2008]
Atonality and sonic experimentation may be the most dangerous ventures in all of music. The tales of otherwise passable music rendered virtually unlistenable are almost countless, and very few acts have ever been able to balance those indulgences with a sense that anyone might actually want to get into the music; for every Sonic Youth or …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, there are a million charred corpses of impostors like AIDS Wolf or Test Icicles left in their wake, their blown-out amplifiers and ugly sweaters looming as wretched specters serving to remind everyone not only of all the things those great bands before them were, but more importantly of what those pretenders were not.
Alternately compelling, awful, forward-thinking and flat-out strange, San-Francisco-based avant-garde group Xiu Xiu’s latest, Women As Lovers, has the band shifting gears as usual between intelligent straight-ahead pop and total noise rock disaster. Jamie Stewart’s delicate vocals quiver along on themes of loss and hopelessness, whether in the face of heartbreak or perceived political wrongs while a chorus of guitars, horns, xylophones and every brand of implement of dissonant percussion clang and bang at all the right and wrong times, as though Tom Waits’ junkyard orchestra were assaulting an Ian Curtis children’s’ record.
And where experimentation of musical form is concerned, Women could almost be called a great success, as Stewart and pals have managed to create an entire 45-minute album almost completely devoid of harmony, melody, hooks, riffs, or nearly any of the tenets of conventional songwriting. The exception, naturally, is the group’s bizarre and patently original cover of “Under Pressure,” with Swans’ Michael Gira handling the Bowie duties. But while Bowie and Freddie Mercury were singing about possibility and hope, Stewart and Gira take the anthemic positivity and turn it on its head; in their hands, the idea turns from a question of “why can’t we give love one more chance?” to one of “what’s love going to do about any of this?”
As with most bands of the genre, it’s a case of take it or leave it, although the audio abrasiveness and general difficulty that make Women such a hard listen will in all likelihood be what make Xiu Xiu fans take notice in the first place. Hardcore noise and avant fans will most certainly be pleased, but casual listeners may want to get their off-time jones elsewhere.