Trying to convince someone to go to a Xiu Xiu show with you is almost futile.
"Is it going to be fucked up?" one friend asked. "Maybe," I said. "Is someone going to vomit on me?" asked another, referencing the video for the title track from Xiu Xiu's latest LP, Dear God I Hate Myself, which features keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Angela Seo forcing herself to puke on camera. "Probably not," I said.
No, there was no vomiting involved. In fact, my biggest fear was that I'd show up and no one would be there, forcing front man Jamie Stewart to stare into my eyes while he was singing his brutally honest, painful, and often disturbing songs. Fortunately, I wasn't alone, as there was a small legion of high school kids and college freshmen congregating around the front of the stage.
There's a certain relief that washes over a twenty-something when the crowd is mostly comprised of young people. Not in any weird way (duh), but it's guaranteed that the crowd is going to have a ton energy, as opposed to jaded twenty-somethings who are prone to burden musicians with their folded arms and stoic gazes. The big moment was watching the crowd react to Tune-Yards frontwoman Merill Garbus' plea for everyone in the crowd to jump up and down on the count of three. At that, the whole front-section of the crowd began to hop and the back half stood still, composing a sort of yin and yang that would guide the evening. It helps that Tune-Yards are internet famous, though. They managed to make it onto Pitchfork's Top 50 albums of 2009, and the positive press has done them nothing but favors. Oh, and the music is pretty damn good too.
Analog drum loops, intricate bass lines, and Garbus' vocals that come from the gut are made of compelling stuff (or at least the kind of stuff you'd turn your head to watch for a little while, car-crash style). Even though this is the second time I've seen her (the first being when she opened for Dirty Projectors a couple months back), I still can't completely get behind the idea of a white woman crafting songs from the heart of Africa. Yes, Tune-Yards' music is "afro-centric," a buzzword used for many a band these days made up of upper middle class white folk who spent a good amount of time with their parents' copy of Paul Simon's Graceland.
Xiu Xiu, on the other hand, was nothing but suburban angst personified, and I can't believe it took me so long to realize that frontman Jamie Stewart is effectively the Morrissey for the modern age. They even kind of look alike -- with the exception of Stewart's all-the-sides-of-my-head-are-shaved-except-the-top do in place of a pompadour. Xiu Xiu even covered Morrissey's "I Am Hated for Loving" on a split 7" tribute to Moz with the Parenthetical girls. But Morrissey never pushed beyond the boundaries of pop as far as Jamie Stewart has. Throughout the last decade, Stewart has mastered his own brand of in-your-face discomfort delivered with warbling vocals drowned with the brash, distorted wash of synthesizers, cymbals and drum machines. Basically, this isn't party music.
There's something violently personal about Jamie Stewart's songs. Watching him on stage feels like a weird peepshow, or like eavesdropping on some incredibly personal conversation. Yet these conversations are record and sold at record stores and acted out every night in Anytown, USA. Despite preparing for a depressing evening of experimental music with pop leanings, the show ended up being one of the most intense experiences I've had in a live music setting in a long, long time. It's pop music for masochists. Halfway through their second song of the night, I realized it was "Apistat Commander," a track that was slowed down and decoded by indie-pop group Sunset Rubdown for a Xiu Xiu covers record, called Remixed and Covered. The record ultimately displayed a lot of the beauty and straight-up catchiness of Stewart's songs --- all the stuff that Xiu Xiu strives to bury in waves of noise, album after album.
But those hooks seep through, most notably on standouts like "I Luv the Valley (Oh)" from Fabulous Muscles, which featured -- I shit you not -- a goddamned Nintendo DS as a primary instrument. It's an incredibly powerful song, and to watch Stewart singing it with absolute conviction all while pressing a stylus to a Game Boy was pretty incredible. And watching two x-handed kids do an interpretive dance to the song in the middle of the club was pretty spectacular, too.
For forty-five minutes Jamie Stewart looked like he was about to fall apart. How someone goes on stage every night and delivers such painfully personal lyrics and emits that sort of fucked-up energy is beyond me. And bearing witness to it was an emotionally taxing, intense experience that only comes along once every couple of years.