When the vast majority of indie acts lay spurious claim to the notion that their music isn’t gonna be pigeonholed by us journo schlubs with our blunt instruments of genre-based oppression, there’s an underlying theme playing out, like the barely-perceptible note of melancholy underscoring The Boss’ tub-thumping production of ‘Born In The USA’: self-denial.
Think about it: what could be more cruel as a wide-eyed indie kid than having the illusion of autonomy swiped from under your upturned nose; the notion that, far from being the genre-spanning free-thinker you always thought you were, you’ve actually been reverting to social type all along, and your band, such as it could ever really be termed as such, is but a drop in the ocean of one cacophonous, derivative-to-the-nth-degree dirge, about as capable of blending influences as it is oil and holy water.
It’s like Mother Teresa arriving at the pearly gates only to be met a gurning God as played by Danny Dyer: “Free will? Nah that’s all bollocks, you dozy CAHNT.”
Xiu Xiu, on the other hand, make decent fist of being genuinely awkward buggers, but you can bet your ass what a profile of your average fan of the band would look like, and that’s yours truly. Honestly, it’s disgusting: male, mid-twenties, punk-ish zeal grown a little flabby round the waist, prone to introspection and pretty much bored to tears with generic indie tropes but unable to cut the apron strings from that first and most profound of loves.
Still, never underestimate the power of self-denial.
Because, as much as I can appreciate Xiu Xiu for all their meticulous arrangements and incorporation of electronic, ambient and jazz textures into their palette, there’s a colourlessness to their compositions, an anal attention to detail at the expense of the bigger picture which precludes me from enjoying them as I probably should.
For all that, the California outfit’s eighth album to date, Women As Lovers, opens strongly with some of their most accessible moments to date. ‘I Do What I Want, When I Want’ sounds intimate and fully-formed, bathed in a weird, tracing paper translucency, and ‘In Lust You Can Hear The Axe Fall’ is a breathtaking standout, all lurching, malevolent strings and dynamite drum fills.
Only Stewart’s knack for dodging a vocal melody prevents the Wolf Parade-ish ‘No Friend Oh!’ from being full-on anthemic, or, since one might well suppose Stewart sets no store in the cheap promises of redemption offered by such a concept, anti-anthemic. An anthem would have us believe we can wrestle back control from the vast indifference of the universe, retaining a stoic’s faith in man’s essential nobility, Stewart sees only broken vessels; the body not as heroic agent but as receptacle for society’s ideological fallout.
As such, we’re ‘treated’ to expositions on notions of complicity in democracy vs terrorism (‘Guantanamo Canto’), a transsexual’s desire to feel natural within rigidly defined gender norms (‘The Leash’) and the indoctrination of children into war (‘Child At Arms’).
Like I say, hilarious stuff, but rendering undergrad sociology essays in verse format does not a great lyric make, no matter how clever your internal AABCCB rhyme schemes, and as much as we might admire as ‘brave’ lines like “Why would you tell how many times that my father made you cream” (in the tremulous Freudian nightmare of ‘Black Keyboard’), it’s fair to say they’re not gonna be iPod faves for anyone who’s grown attached to their sanity of late.
After ex-Swans frontman Michael Gira’s Lou Reed-like turn on a surprisingly effective cover of David Bowie and Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’, things take a definitive turn for the obscure, and we’re left with a series of directionless musings that trip over their own shonkily Sellotaped wiring before sinking under the weight of their own portent.
Sonically inhabiting a dystopian landscape that reeks of faulty electronics, smoking hard drives and misfiring synapses, Women As Lovers is proof positive that if navel gazing was an extreme sport, Xiu Xiu would be its leading practitioners, wielding an earnest approach which, while occasionally proving scary and even moving, borders heavy-handedness and rapidly becomes oppressive.
6Alex Denney's Score