Xiu Xiu are a band who could be accused of many things, but mediocrity is certainly not one of them. Xiu Xiu stand resolutely separate from the pack, screaming and wailing about hating themselves, sexual deviance and abortion while other American alternative rock bands make a desperate lunge for at least a small amount of mainstream success. Jamie Stewart, the brains behind Xiu Xiu, is melodramatic, waving a sad sack to rival Morrissey or Robert Smith, but has an anger and a disregard for the enjoyment of the listener which marks him as an entirely separate entity. He knows that his music is often grating, confrontational and embarrassing, and doesn’t care at all. It’s simply his voice, and he can’t change it.
Musically, Xiu Xiu’s new album Always is hardly a departure from their previous efforts. Their music is still very percussive and occasionally almost danceable, there are still bursts of confrontational white noise or distortion, and Stewart still sings in his fragile, hysterical way which has turned off so many listeners in the past. The 8-bit bleeps and beeps that dominated their last album “Dear God, I Hate Myself’ (seriously, that’s the title) return here, especially on opening track ‘Hi’ and ‘Born To Suffer’. Sadly whereas almost every previous Xiu Xiu album has featured hooky, almost poppy songs smeared and dirtied by Stewart’s strange, gothy sensibilities, there is not much catchy or hooky to latch onto on Always. It is an engaging and stimulating listen, at times very sad and at times almost funny, but I can never imagine warming to it.
It is easy to respect musical experimentalism and unusual instrumentation, and it is easy to respect a spirit of adventure and disregard for the mainstream. However, if there is nothing even remotely pleasant to latch on to, it is a hard album to feel positively about. Songs like ‘Smear The Queen’ and ‘Honey Suckle’ certainly do approach being reasonably pleasant to listen to, and in the case of ‘Honey Suckle’ maybe even approach being catchy and likeable, but this only serves to highlight the abrasive tone of the rest of the album. This has always been Xiu Xiu’s problem; they smuggle remarkable, catchy pop songs (like the stunning ‘I Luv The Valley OH!’ on their best album Fabulous Muscles) and surround it with screaming and atonal noise.
While I would never wish for Xiu Xiu to cave in and sound like everyone else, it does make it a challenge to listen to at the best of times. As a personal fan of Jamie Stewart’s recorded output, it was tempting to simply rave about their unusual, shockingly honest music and deplore everyone to buy it. However, the truth is that there is a wealth of immediate, catchier, more penetrable music in the Xiu Xiu canon that, although Jessie J it aint, is a far easier listen.
Released 27th February 2012 by Bella Union