This all by way of passing comment on the challenging Xiu Xiu, never an easy thing to do. A couple of years ago I talked to the band’s main male Jamie Stewart. He was forthcoming and amenable, not a difficult artiste, and he talked about what he does with a seriousness that I liked very much. He thinks he’s a cranky, pretentious arsehole, but I don’t. Anyway, I do think it’s interesting that Stewart’s openly human persona doesn’t always reconcile with the often sonically and lyrically traumatized music he makes. There is some backstory: He told me about his father, a drug addict who died by suicide. It’s hard for me now to not project a lot of liteweight pop psychology upon Stewart’s musical madness. Like, a-ha
No, no, this music is not mad at all. It’s considered, and has solid intellectual rigour behind it. Superficially, Xiu Xiu’s Girl With Basket of Fruit is either like a truly scary monster movie or a wicked bad bummer nightmare, the kind that follows you into the next day and stinks up your whole morning and with bum luck your entire day. Which is to say that it’s got that certain something that is entrancing, at least alluring. It’s horrifying, and it’s funny. It’s devastating.
The new album’s title references a Caravaggio print called Boy With Basket of Fruit. The record’s billions upon zillions of digitally diced, cornholed and creamed words and sounds were created by Stewart; longtime collaborator Angela Seo played on and co-produced it, along with Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier; the current lineup also includes Swans’ Thor Harris and bassist Devin Hoff; Oxbow singer Eugene Robinson puts in an appearance, as do several other non-genre-music luminaries.
Stewart has said that usually, Xiu Xiu songs are narratives about the internal effects of external events, but for this new album, the lyrics were mostly derived from the “internal effects of internal events”: he is reacting to other people’s texts and images. Among the album’s subject matters are disease, murder, lynchings, the debasement of women, environmental ruin, the end of Earth, art history, music itself, and pinhead nostalgia for a Freedom Fries world that was, in hindsight, never all that great to begin with.
Girl With Basket of Fruit
The title track, like much of the album, is indeed quite ugly stuff — with a purpose. A noisy hash of canned vocal effects and skittering sequenced sounds, its abrupt stops and starts are tense, not sensual. We hear Stewart railing and pleading, in oblique verbiage that is on second listen bleakly chortle-worthy: There’s “No path straight through”…“The dragon fruit / the passion fruit”… “Life has become impossible”… “fuck a blue sky”… a woman facing a man must “wave away his sickening B.O.” There are by my count two mentions of buttholes.
It Comes Out As a Joke
Stewart’s trying-outs of thoughts and visions invites you and probably himself to interpret them, or maybe defies us to try. I suspect that it’s only as impenetrable as you want it to be. Obviously, he’s getting something out, so it’s catharsis at minimum, though that’d seem to trivialize it. “It Comes Out As a Joke” rides a low-frequency pulse/throb as Stewart is distraught again. An obscure squinky keyboard bit worms its weird little head in. In this short ‘n’ “sweet” track, there are about 12 different kinds of agitation, which is not mere agitation at all.
Amargi Ve Moo
Stewart has an authenticity, and you sense an actual incentive to not just rebel but to mystify and to repulse. When he expresses what I imagine is, buried not so deep, real trauma — and usually not in a literal way — it is believable, it rings with truth, and (cheaply perhaps) it’s thrilling, too. In the spare “Amargi Ve Moo,” there are no drums, just Devin Hoff’s sawed double bass overtones and Stewart’s shivering vocal: “Knock knock! Don’t answer!” An atrocity has happened, or will happen. “Let there be peace”…“I am not ready/and I cannot accept”…He goes into jibber-lip sounds. “Mary Turner, Mary Turner” is almost straightforward in the way it describes atrocity in unvarnished detail. Stewart’s voice is distorted with FX, there are laughing-like electronics, uncanny string section ripsaws. It’s chilling, radical. Then, all the music seems to break down, because everything broke down; random bolts of drum/bass throb/jolt as Hazel is strung up by a lynch mob.
Mary Turner, Mary Turner
“Fuck your flag,” whispers Jamie.
Ice Cream Truck
As Stewart would say, “Smile and then don’t.” It’s horror either way, though it could make you laugh to hear him delineate atrocity like there can always be found a bit of ludicrousness in it: a “hairpiece drops from the ceiling.” Likewise in “Ice Cream Truck”: collisions of sounds/thoughts, double-bass fragments, churning, mechanical percussive loops, abstract raps from Stewart. It’s not entirely abstract, nothing ever is; this music also reminds of psychedelic drugs, which offer a fractured reality, yet reality nevertheless.
Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy
The sheer jarring variety of sounds is astounding in “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy,” the album’s most “beat-musik”-like track, what with its pulsating, pumping percussion/bass sequences behind processed voice snippets (“If you wanted to be a human being”…“Nothing / nothing / no-no-nothing”). This piece stomps along royally, in fact is quite a headbanger, but then you’ve got to hear Stewart’s sensitive Ferry-esqueness astride flanged bass and stately chords on the elegiac “The Wrong Thing,” a far sicker version of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” in which that voice is a list freak who names foods beginning with A: apples, avocados, apricots, etc. Why? Your choice. In a cloudlike swirl, the song fizzes down into the otherworldly, a swelling mass of stringlike haze, thumps, throbs, other sounds, all the way to the end.
The Wrong Thing
In “the end,” however, the album’s closing track, “Normal Love,” rinses out one’s head, or substitutes one kind of pain for a few others. Stewart is still distressed, but he’s pleading: “I don’t need to feel alive,” he insists, quivering. Liar.
John Payne is Music Critic at Riot Material. He also writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, Drum!, High Times and Bluefat. Mr. Payne is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and editor/co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer (Unbound, spring 2019).