The Air Force
Man, life is a traumatic journey. Most folks view the trauma of growing and living as directly proportional to the heft of one's wallet, but no matter whom you are or what you got, pushing through the wet nether parts of life and being dropped unceremoniously and constantly into the bright light of day is harsh. So many fail to survive their childhoods, and just as many manage to somehow blossom in the shit-encrusted ashtray their seeds were planted. And it's not simply a matter of bootstraps and right-thinking - how many that die in a war were not exquisitely prepared to handle life - it's a matter is luck and the right maneuvering, I guess.
I know you already know all this, in fact, if you, unlike me, have some innate common sense, you sub-know it. It's etched into your DNA right next to the ability to throw and catch a ball with any sort of accuracy, a skill that somehow also mutated off the gene pool before I drank from it. So for me, when that survival is laid bare for stark analysis, like your litanies of ill deed and humiliations are put through an analysis engine and displayed on the HD big screen like on CSI, it shakes my tree. Jamie Stewart's Xiu Xiu project hits me like that. Though he's not passing around the embarrassing naked photos like he used too (One of my cousins did that. He went on a trip to Belize and fell in desperate love with a hooker and came back with tons of Polaroids and gleefully distributed them among us gathered in the living room) he still is ripping the bedsheets off himself on his latest The Air Force.
It opens innocently enough with a family room piano on "Buzz saw" when suddenly Stewart's voice bursts in like a horror movie ghost warning a co-ed to get out of that haunted house, and someone is administering some needed punishment to a metal trash can. All this is intersected with electronic smears and a slight Ligeti-style choir in the wings. Ligeti (the composer who made his popular fame with the harrowing ambience of "2001: A Space Odyssey) is a particular touchstone for Xiu Xiu - it shares a sense of ramshackle fragility mixed with a healthy dose of romanticism. "Boy Soprano" is practically an N'Sync song after the previous number, or maybe what Depeche Mode will sound like in Purgatory. "Hello from Eau Claire" finds his girl cousin singing a sweet song over a beleaguered toy piano about being a big boy now, kind of the flipside of "Sad Pony Guerilla Girl" a couple years back.
The album has some of the most accessible stuff in his catalog, like "Vulture Piano" and "Bishop, CA.," even with lines like
Should you be ashamed for more than that
The night your dad raped you silly
Leaning my head on the refrigerator
Crying for the stupid world we share
If he could keep the circuit-bent Merlin and the rack of reception desk bells away from the microphone, he might have a hit on his hands. But that's the beauty of Xiu Xiu. As much as the lyrics and Stewart's breathy, hell, hyperventilated, delivery is over the top, so is the orchestration in all directions. It can be bone dry as a leaf in autumn or juicy like a rotten mango. Either way, there is something cosmic in the exhortations and shudders in Xiu Xiu's Chinese-opera-cum-electropop, It is music-making that has nothing to show but its scars, and is crossing its fingers, hoping you find them sexy. And you will.
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