Historically, Xiu Xiu has not been a band that’s easy to listen to. In fact, their music is often difficult and, occasionally, downright painful.
Take, for example, their cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” off of 2003’s “A Promise.” On this version, the band trades the jaunty syncopation and gritty, soulful vocals of Chapman’s recording for a crawling pace and the whiny, struggling voice of Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart.
After five minutes and 53 seconds, it’s enough to really piss you off, especially if you like the Chapman version — most especially if you don’t like to admit that you love the Chapman version, that it speaks to you and gives you hope, but it does and you do.
But “Fast Car” is not really a happy song, no matter who is singing it. Even as Chapman looks to a brighter future, her hope is a hopelessly irrational one, clinging as it does to an American ideal that passes her, her lover and most of the rest of us by. So what potentially makes this Xiu Xiu cover so hateful is that it is rightly bleak, brazenly refusing to put on a brave face in a song about poverty and despair.
But to settle here would be to risk missing the point entirely.
Xiu Xiu’s music isn’t so much about feelings (appropriately or inappropriately rendered) or easy listening, but rather about music and sounds and limits. “Art” and “experimental” are terms that get thrown around a lot when it comes to describing anything that’s not on the Billboard charts, and yet art and experimentation seem to be exactly what is at stake here. As mainstream music continues to be carefully packaged by expert producers (see: Timbaland, the Neptunes and anyone who’s ever worked with Nelly Furtado or Gwen Stefani), bands like Xiu Xiu have pushed back, challenging expectations of what constitutes a good voice, a good melody, a good song.
With all this in mind, then, it seems like a sacrilege to say that some songs on Xiu Xiu’s latest album, “Women as Lovers,” are improbably catchy. Though occasionally hearkening back to their noisy, unpolished roots, the band has adopted a pop sensibility, perhaps as a result of their collaboration with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier (who also produced 2006’s “The Air Force”). Picking up on typically dark themes of obsession, death, bondage, Stewart seems to have found, if not the will to live, then at least the will to occasionally lilt along to a pleasantly bouncing melody and clever, toe-tap inducing percussion, provided by Ches Smith.
That said, though the album is certainly their most accessible thus far, Xiu Xiu still isn’t great background music for your next dance party or Wednesday afternoon at the gym. And, beautiful and masterfully crafted as they may be, songs called “You are Pregnant, You are Dead” and “There are Two Men in a Red Mercedes Trying to Rape a Woman In My Parking Lot” aren’t going to get much mainstream airplay.
But, in the words of Pablo Picasso, “painting is not made to decorate apartments.”
And, in the words of Cursive, “Art is hard.”
So yes, Xiu Xiu is hard and occasionally unpalatable. But life is hard and occasionally unpalatable. So man up, or just enjoy the album’s exceptionally listenable opening track, “I Do What I Want, When I Want” on endless loop and ignore the rest of the songs entirely.