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WHISPER TO A SCREAM


To dub Xiu Xiu "cathartic" is an understatement; it's like saying a fart in an elevator is "intrusive."


To dub Xiu Xiu "cathartic" is an understatement; it's like saying a fart in an elevator is "intrusive."

originally published: December, 2005

WHISPER TO A SCREAM

Xiu Xiu
La Floret
(5 Rue Christiene)

The Dead Science
The Frost Giant
(Absolutely Kosher)

Xiu Xiu + the Dead Science, Live at the Red Star, Baton Rouge, LA 12/01/2005

Last time we visited Jamie Stewart in the bedroom of his soul, bunk beds, tattered punk rock posters on the wall, possibly a couple model planes leftover from his childhood hanging from the ceiling and an upturned bottle of lube on the nightstand, he was slashing away at his musical wrists spurting out the remarkable if scattered Fabulous Muscles, putting a bare bulb on his tattered tales of uncomfortable tales of sex and love and war and whatnot, and really I wondered where he could go from there. His voice was already almost reduced to a choke and a whisper. The synth and drum din acted like strobe arcs from behind his eyes. To dub Xiu Xiu "cathartic" is an understatement; it's like saying a fart in an elevator is "intrusive." So where could he go on this one? Rend off pieces of his own flesh to print the limited edition CD covers? Include each copy with a vile of tears?

How about add some classical texture to his viscous, vicious concoctions? La Floret contains a lot of the trappings of the original: striated beats, shatteringly icy atmosphere, and his voice becoming even more spectral than before, and adds exotics like autoharp, clarinets, bells and sweeping guitar parts and greets his pain head on like a man instead of the wounded boy we experienced before. "Clover" opened La Foret close enough to the soundhole of his guitar and his exaggerated whisper-sing that he fogs up your glasses before it dissolves into a Penderski string drone with bells overhead and an encroaching thunderstorm. Xiu Xiu's shit was always tight as a lute string, but this is even tighter. "Muppet face" opens in a dream cascade of bells and a Vince-Clarke-in-hell beat leading into the more placid twing and twang of "Mousey Toy" where you can almost feel him shiver through the emotional cloud, where "his continent is lit by the Holocaust with my red lips."

"Pox" is almost shocking in its more recognizable synth-rock song structure, his voice soaring like if those guys from Depeche Mode were willing to go there. "Saturn" is a black hole collapsing, presumably inspired by the child-eating god and not the tranquil planet but the real symphonic gem is "Rose of Sharon (Grey Ghost Version)" pitching his gulping whispers against a full on mournful string section. This level of nuanced musicality was hinted at in his past records, but never achieved with such a masterful touch as here. Its the kind of huge spotlight aria you want (if you want these kinds of things) out of a huge modern staged musical and never get. Stewart gets as maudlin and open as any out there, but manages to keep all his dignity in the process. "Bog People" brings us down with some deft autoharping, and I have said before, I am a open and unabashed autoharp lover: he uses it to great swirling effect creating a complicated scratchy vortex for him to shout through. The final track "Dangerous You Shouldn't Be Here," which is often how you feel as a listener exposed to this level of honesty and sparking humanity, is organ and tinkered-with nylon guitar and a forest of synth pops and rustles and his voice from the great beyond. It is blissfully heavy, pushing any Gothic faux-misery aside to cut the line for crossing line to finally "feel peace inside my head" like in the opening line of "Clover" when it eventually repeats, because you will be prone on the floor, watching the final bubbles float to the ceiling as this record fills the room with water.

Xiu Xiu's support act for the evening are fellow Seattle-ites the Dead Science, who wrenched all the drama possible out of the narcotic tangos and sleepwalking-off-a-cliff odes from their recent album The Frost Giants on the concrete floor of the Red Star. On the album, Sam Micken's strained voice weaves around Jherek Biscoff's thumping and throbbing double bass and drummer Nick Tamburro's like an intra-coital Marianne Faithfull being sullied by The Dirty Three, and I mean that in the best possible way. His nuanced guitar lines like on "Blood Tuning" and particularly "Sam Mickens' Dreams" totally color the air between your headphones like he surreptitiously installed some gels on the houselights when you weren't looking. And really, the more I listen to it, I realize his falsetto is a lot like that of say Prince or D'angelo, its drenched with sex and life and death, drifting above the seascape of his backing group. A horn section adds some additional texture to the opening of "The Future, Forever (Until You Die)" but it quickly falls back into the mode of fucked-torch-combo atmosphere. His voice takes some getting used to, but that of all interesting vocalists do, and once their sinister slink gets under your skin, you can't really shake it.

Live, the Science gets even looser and slinkier, with bass being scraped into cat screams dotting the thump and Nick riding his drum kit like a mechanical bull. The have a very cinematic quality about them, reminding me of the scene in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, where a tantalizingly drunken and sleazy Crime and the City Solution were the bar band in one scene. The Dead Science play more to the blue flame of the torch live, holding it at an icy distance, handing it off to the crowd. It was stretched thin, laid bare before us, which was the perfect opening set for what was to hit us when the main even hit the stage.

Xiu Xiu had the most gear-tatsic array set up:: a couple synths, 10,000 cymbals, electric mandolin, autoharp and to top it off, this grid of desk-bells, like the ones call the bellhop, that they would smash and bash to create the birdsquall of ringing glory that punctuated the performance. maybe it was the soundsystem, or maybe the noisiness of the club, but the night was clearly not about the vocals, whispered and gulped into the mic but about high-power gamelan onslaught. It was like a million beatboxes were united to uprise and slay their masters, sinister, violent and not a little funky. I've often thought their albums had a touch of Chinese opera about them, crash and bash with weird (to Western hearing, anyway) singing, and this theory is proven in performance. The only song I could really discern during this marathon set was the spectacular take on the wounded anthem of 2003's A Promise, " Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl," which is the song that brought them to my attention with its lethal chorus "I like my neighborhood/I like my gun/I am Your Girl and I will protect you." At the end of the evening, I caught Jamie for a moment and asked him the secret of the whole Xiu Xiu thing, and he laughed "God, I am the worst person to ask that. I wonder more 'why does anyone else care about this stuff?" Well, let me tell you. Xiu Xiu scratches that itch, that tragic intense itch that calls your to shriek, to masturbate, to kick a trash can, to explode a little in all its connotations. I ploughs through you like a car in a chase scene, hits you like a quarterback sack, sends your soring like you just jumped a ramp on your bike. Its a combination of intense glee and harrowing devastation of growing up and all that, and if it gets to you, it leaves a little scar with each listen.

Alex V. Cook

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com

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