In the amorphous landscape of alternative music, Xiu Xiu stand out as one of the best examples of why thinking through subversion is still a good idea. Okay, it’s complicated to even identify what ‘subversive’ even means in 2014, but for more than a decade Xiu Xiu have persistently succeeded in making us feel uncomfortable. Porn, S&M, queer politics, blood, self-pity and an overall celebration of outsiderness are only a few of the many sources of inspiration incorporated in Jamie Stewart’s experimental, dissonant, squeaky body of work. Pairing musical venture with thematic uneasiness, Xiu Xiu have always been more than happy to ‘get their hands dirty’.
Angel Guts: Red Classroom, named after a 1979 Japanese erotic movie, is a hell of a comeback: with longtime foil Angela Seo back on board, Stewart is now joined by percussionist Shayna Dunkelman and Swans drummer Thor Harris in what sounds like one of the most Xiu Xiu records to date. Employing only analogue synths and drum boxes, the album falls back in love with rawness and cacophony, going full circle with the sharp-edged sound of their debut Knife Play. Although Xiu Xiu never ceased to be unruly, it is nonetheless true that their last four albums, fascinated by pop, felt overall less ‘hostile’ than their predecessors. After returning to LA, Stewart’s interest in pop ‘was gone overnight’ (says the press release). The crime and poverty of the MacArthur Park neighbourhood is the album’s narrative backdrop; some of the songs are even named after shops and businesses found in the district.
The album is bracketed by two spectacular, eerie instrumentals. The opening track seems to set the atmosphere for the insurgence of a homicidal thought, leaving a drone unnervingly suspended until it fades into silence. It’s almost Coil territory. The desolate ‘Archie’s Fades’ prolongs the suspense, by adding minor industrial noises to a monotonous melody. “MacArthur’s park is melting in the dark”, sang Jimmy Webb; in ‘Stupid in The Dark’ Stewart reports the experience of being mugged at night, alternating his throaty narration of the episode with a half-hysterical and half-ironical admission of naivety. Synths throb, the pulse races.
But there’s a bunch of songs which aim at your stomach far more ruthlessly. ‘Lawrence Liquors’ cannot be understood outside of its own anarchy. Stewart’s voice lurks under a bed of scratches, sirens and what sound like the screaming voices of possessed puppets. In ‘El Naco’, announced by warning bells, he declaims and despairs until gongs and thunderous synths end up suffocating him. Far from unbearable, this unsettling exaggeration reaches magnificent, operatic heights, not so far from Diamanda Galás’ deafening lamentations. While ‘Adult Friends’ seeks to combine horror and confusion with an unlikely chorus, ‘The Silver Platter’, the most explicitly Suicide-influenced song on the record, is breathtaking; the drums shoot like machine guns and if Stewart’s anguished chatting isn’t enough to distress you, meowing synths oscillate until everything dies in a sequence of thuds. ‘Cynthia’s Unisex’, a random beauty salon in LA and from now on also the name of a Xiu Xiu song about double penetration, features one of Jamie’s nuttiest vocal interpretations to date.
Besides these unrepentant, thumping experiments lie the ‘slow burners’. ‘New Life Imagination’ and the artsy march ‘A Knife In The Sun’ are both sparser and more atmospheric: “We don’t need to live to love”, sings Stewart in his typically gelid manner in the former, whilst in the latter he unpacks the absurdity of the death-worshipping Santa Muerte sect. ‘Bitter Melon’, meshing a samba-like drum pattern with bells, sad vocals and a few distortions, is an exercise in oddity. ‘Black Dick’, questioning race, desire and objectification, has a life of its own: Harris’ live drums are so terse and incisive they’ll make you feel like dancing, while Stewart’s obsessive, repetitive words may swallow you up in utter bewilderment.
That’s the good old school Xiu Xiu effect, a back and forth between enchantment and disorientation. When the closing instrumental track retrieves the opening drone, you realise you’ve come a long way, you’ve made it after all. That’s when a strident farting noise precipitates unexpected, obstructing your ears (it’s impossible not to recall Scott Walker’s closing ‘remarks’ in Bish Bosch). Angel Guts: Red Classroom is the typical blend of passion, pain and awkwardness which makes Xiu Xiu what they are. Fearless, demanding, relentlessly subversive.
Published on Drowned in Sound