Feel the Pain (and the thrill) of Xiu Xiu
Sara Swinson
7/4/2005 2:30:11 PM

How to describe the sound of Xiu Xiu live? Think Morrissey meets The Traveling Wilburys meets the Teletubbies near an ice-cream truck that has just run over David Bowie.

There’s angst, pain, David Bowie screaming underneath screeching wheels whilst Teletubbies surround him… innocently, yet, anxiously burbling out sounds no one understands; there’s Morrissey protesting the exploitation of cows—“Meat is murder! Meat is murder!” There’s the ice-cream truck hydroplaning over Bowie’s limbs whilst simultaneously hammering out its alluring tink-tinks to the children; there’s The Traveling Wilburys, melodic and stringed … with that guy Roy Orbison who sounded like he was crying while singing. He’s dead now.

The three-piece band, Xiu Xiu, is seductively disturbing, earfully entertaining and creepily captivating. They played their collective heart out at The Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center; raw, inarticulate emotions seemingly absorbed through open sweating pores—visceral enough to stick inside and, with the heat index that night in St. Louis at 110 degrees, sticky enough inside to stick. The venue’s blast of sauna-intensive heat smacked attendees upside their vapored heads; collective dew from a mostly under-21 crowd. Fairly full for an early show, the later show was sold out.

Impacting the audience even more than the heat was the visage of Xiu Xiu’s front man, Jamie Stewart, who’s handsome enough to star in a soap opera. Stewart deftly rocks out on all kinds of strings and percussion while handling lead vocals. Beholding Stewart is an instrumental epiphany and soon spectators imagined limitless possibilities; what other items might Stewart masterfully apply? The tin whistle? A 1982 vintage, Mickey Mouse rotary phone? He plucked at the strings like as if he’d stolen it from the grip of some angel, dragged it down to earth and transformed it into an intensely engaging tool born for pop-noise razzle-dazzle. Stewart’s tortured physicality betrays fleeting intimations of an eroticism informed by tumult; sensuality either exacerbated by pain or animated because of it… or both? His onstage persona holds a jagged tension between boyish frailty and predacious animus. Jamie Stewart is simply adorable, yet, really scary. A great combination.

The audience dripped… and stood transfixed in a conspicuously air-conditionless room; a space devoid of cooling air—already erratic sound waves made crazy by the whirling fans. But this was not a cold show, so how could the room be destined for anything other than a sweltering kind of angst? Xiu Xiu is an impassioned, fired-up display, composed of chaotic sounds and sensitivities. At times, Stewart screamed and just as his wail reached fever pitch, it cracked, crumbled off its peak and petered out into beautiful, broken whimpers. The lyrical content was indecipherable, but that point is moot, really. One’s inability to discern words could not hamstring the ability to discern feelings. Devoid of lyrical awareness, listeners still harbor a tacit knowledge that speaks of the heart behind the sounds of Xiu Xiu.

This was noise-pop and there were noises; some seemed otherworldly, some slightly demonic and some, thoughtfully discordant—yet, somehow everything sweetly scooped into the songs. Xiu Xiu ended up serving a melodious-like parfait filled with creamy flavors and shards of glass. What should’ve been cacophonous wasn’t—instead the intentionally disjointed sounds worked towards a kind of emotional unification—reconciling disparate parts to the whole.

Bandmember Caralee McElroy took her mic and grazed it over drum-skin, tenderly scraping the shell of the instrument as if tenderly scraping the shell of a heart. If tears had sounds maybe this noise comes close? But there was percussion too—at times, marching; at times, tapping; at times just crashing contemplatively over cymbals.

McElroy played keyboards/ synthesizer while their compatriot Cory McCulloch played another guitar. Atypical instruments were scattered around—one unknown noisemaker was candy red and looked like it had been ripped off a fire truck. Another instrument smacked of accordionism but looked like it had been yanked from a salvage yard--not from a Parisian gypsy with a monkey on his shoulder.

In Stewart’s closing song, his voice— wilting and lulling—insinuated itself into the cramped emotional landscape. Ironically, at the very end of the show, Stewart delicately murmured, “Your glass heart is clinking, your glass heart is clinking.” We felt the taps of several snaps to crystal … clink, clink … and then came the shattering, earth-crunching split. Stewart shouted, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” before a slow fade over broken glass and then… a beautiful, bleeding whimper.

Opening bands were Puppet Show, Home Recording Project, and thissongisamessbutsoami. Check out Xiu Xiu’s latest CD release: la foret [5 Rue Christine].

Live photo by David Horvitz


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