5 Rue Christine
amie Stewart’s recordings as Xiu Xiu are almost entirely predicated on misunderstanding. It’s no surprise. So far as I can tell, they aren’t there to be understood. Cultural, sexual, and artistic confusion are the building blocks of a haute-punk refuse that is as meta-musical as it is confession. No, scratch “confession.” Xiu Xiu lyrics seem to refuse to assign a potential for tidy self-knowledge, that most unexamined of modern virtues. The schizophrenia of the musical settings confirm this. Why should you care? I’ll come back to that.
La Forêt may be Xiu Xiu’s most controlled and sanguine release to date (the tour EP with Yim Yoshii Pile-up and the mostly acoustic “Fag Patrol” aside). The instrumental trees for the forest (La Forêt) are acoustic guitars, vibraphones, bass clarinets, celli, autoharps, and organice dry heaving start-and-stop bursts of instrumental processing (an analog to Stewart’s Tourettic delivery). La Forêt is a contemplative, but by no means a tamed document. A friend playfully noted “Xiu Xiu learned to record but thank God they still don’t mix right” (don’t worry, the electronic thrash-stomp-anthems still sound mastered to 3rd-generation cassette). There are few “WORST VACATION EVER!!!” moments, few Clown Town post-pop carnival plays. The whole release seems born out of the darker “I can't wait till you realize mommy's heart is broken” tracks off Fabulous Muscles and constitutes a step sideways in the migration toward DSM-IV-arena-rawk.
The consistent aspect of Xiu Xiu’s music and the emotional pit at the center of this, Stewart’s fourth full-length release, is the condition of their expression: f-u-c-k-e-d. AND giving a fuck. One relates to the discontinuity, the inability to express, the imperviousness to emotional modesty. While Stewart draws on a faux-naïve aesthetic for emotional resonance, he recycles the broken, the primitive, the immature and pop, both lyrically and musically, in such a way that the results are a fresh, albeit expressionist, take on direct, personal songwriting (rather than an aimless exercise in conceptual deconstruction). With every semi-serial release Stewart seems to continue to add to a single self-inflicted/infected body of work. In the process, he has fashioned himself into one of the indie-ground’s most polarizing, perplexing and compelling monologists.
Not every song invites praise. “Saturn” seems like a purposeless throwaway but sets up such a stunning coda that one realizes just how necessary the failures are to Xiu Xiu’s identity.
If very few Xiu Xiu songs beg repeated plays and radio real estate, what is remarkable about Xiu Xiu is not that it is somehow more emotionally direct, inventive, dark, or ‘dangerous’ than its peers. It’s not that it screams, it’s the way it screams. That rock’s primal scream is the heart of its authenticity and the seed of its truth is a lingering modernist assumption that underpins music’s youth culture, even as the same sort of mock-anger is busy selling soda to angry young suburbs. Stewart’s a screamer for sure. But he also understands that the most direct path for a scream to take is not always the literal one. To connect with these songs is to grant that when we’re screamin’ it real, we’re very often wailing in metaphors and tropes and the regurgitated signposts of pop culture. It’s what we know and who we are. Culture is what the human animal makes.
It’s perfectly natural and inescapable stuff and it’s this material that Xiu Xiu draws upon to express the felt things that mere word, raw gesture, or musical formalities cannot. Jamie Stewart’s musical identity is no more cries of mere puerile, simplistic teenage angst than Basquiat’s paintings are reducible to the primitive, childish doodles, misspellings and enshrined mistakes that populate them. Stewart’s music sets autistic doodles, childish poetry, and mistakes against new backgrounds—a very sophisticated poetry of very juvenile expressions.
Writer Matt LeMay, in a 2003 interview, is one of the few writers who seems to get what most Xiu Xiu fans seem to intuit: “Stewart challenges the most fundamental conventions of musical expression and honesty with an intensity that's often been misread as parody, irony or cheap theatrics…oftentimes, the most complex, difficult, gut-wrenchingly painful situations seem to be expressed through the glossiest, most calculated and restrained music. [Xiu Xiu]…doesn't fit into the cookie-cutter definition of "sincere" and "reflective" music that we've come to expect.” Music does not accrete weight because it’s dark in tone and subject. La Forêt has the sort of courage-minus-contrivance that is exceedingly (and ironically) rare in music of its dramatic and thematic ilk. For this reason, though I have enjoyed and admired many records this year, this is one of the few I genuinely care about.