LIVE REVIEW: Xiu Xiu @ The Chapel

Xiu Xiu, touring with members of Swans’ live ensemble, played SF’s The Chapel on 5/28. Photo by Shomei Tomatsu

“Loner,” Thor Harris murmurs matter-of-factly, temporarily seizing the mic from Xiu Xiu frontman, Jamie Stewart. “Lonerrrrrr.” It’s a fitting accusation to thrust into this particular sea of transfixed eyes, as it’s just about halftime and the notion of being little more than jumbled limbs in a heaving crowd has been hastily forgotten. Not long after Xiu Xiu’s sonic slink into the ether, the average schmuck is far too agog to notice the quivering mass of those that are surely sweating on arms and breathing on necks. No, we’ve collectively embraced a healthy dose of social apathy, and we’ve got Stewart’s yowling to thank for it. So when Harris calls out for the loner, we silently respond en masse. Of course, he’s simply reading the first few lines of “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy,” the fifth track off of Xiu Xiu’s latest album, Girl with Basket of Fruit. But it feels as if he’s addressing each one of us directly, rubbed raw by Stewart’s aching bellows and the throbbing bassline of guest bassist Christopher Pravdica, best known as the longstanding bassist of Swans.

The Chapel (a former funeral home in the San Francisco Mission District) possesses the warmth and coloring of an internal organ. Indeed, the Suspiria-red walls fractured by Blue Velvet-hued lighting creates the sort of glow one might discover if they were to slip through a pulmonary artery. However, Xiu Xiu appear to be right at home. They graciously open with perhaps their most well-known song, “I Luv the Valley OH!” and Stewart ensures that that shriek of an OH! is just as gloriously cathartic as it is on the recorded track. Following this nod to their 2004 album, Fabulous Muscles, the trio eagerly launches into their latest, including the aforementioned “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy” (sadly performed without the intoxicating vocal contributions of lyricist Angela Seo), “It Comes Out as a Joke,” “Scisssssssors,” and the album’s namesake track.

Wasting no precious energy on mindless banter between songs, Stewart commits to the performative purge: jumping, jerking, and writhing onstage. His characteristically precarious wail travels from bellowing roar to splitting shriek to curious quack to seductive whisper and back again. In short, the man is seriously well-equipped. The instruments Stewart samples over the course of the show span an equally compelling range (including a slide whistle and what appears to be a makeshift maraca), and his cowbell clanging and cymbal slamming during “It Comes Out as a Joke” is absolutely no nonsense. Thor Harris, Xiu Xiu’s congenial drummer (like Pravdica, known for his work in Swans), also scrambles standard instrumental roleplay. In addition to his spoken word-esque reading of the “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy” (which nonchalantly closes with “And I am kind of a dopey-ass goofball weirdo so I can get why some people don’t like me”), Harris bashes a gong and samples wooden claves. Pravdica, too, is not confined to the bass guitar. One would be remiss to forget his brief affair with those castanets during the encore performance of “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl” (A Promise, 2003).

In pathetic sum, language seemed pretty superfluous by the time I stumbled out of The Chapel, lulled into an awe-bitten, catatonic state. I haven’t even mentioned the lolling lament of “Get Up,” (FORGET, 2017), the absolute blessing of “Clowne Towne” (Fabulous Muscles, 2004), and Stewart’s literal use of snapping scissors as percussive party to the performance of “Scisssssssors.” Fellow affected attendees sucked on cigarettes outside the venue, speechlessness the rule. Given the glaring limitations of the English language, perhaps it is best to refer now to the absurdist bio supplied by Xiu Xiu for their show listing, excerpted from “Ice Cream Truck” on Girl with Basket of Fruit:

“It could be handfuls of reds,” it begins, followed by absurdities that vacillate between the disturbing and the delicious. “It could be mescal in a bottle & baby on a boob, hair dyed blonde for nobody, nobody move.”

It could be that the act of writing this review was an exercise in futility.

It could be that was the best twenty bucks I ever spent.


 The idea that beauty can be extracted from suffering is a bristling comfort, but a comfort nonetheless. Jamie Stewart has mastered this alchemic process in his 15-year post as Xiu Xiu founder and frontman. As we await impending doom – perhaps a nuclear fiasco, the severing of civil rights, or xenophobic federal doctrines – the thought that artistic expression has always withstood tragedy is a bite-sized bit of optimism. In a way, Xiu Xiu’s music is an anthem for this tiny silver lining.

Xiu Xiu’s latest record FORGET pulses with the blood of creative perseverance despite despair. Stewart summons a broad palette of emotion throughout, with the help of Xiu Xiu’s Angela Seo and Shayna Dunkelman, as well as appearances by Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, Charlemagne Palestine, performance artist Vaginal Davis and more. What some have dismissed as “exasperating” and “predictable” is in fact a dynamic and stimulating work, straddling the gamut of Xiu Xiu’s sonic potential.

FORGET kicks off in a brash way, with crass rap snippets by Enyce Smith on opening cut “The Call.” This jolt of agitation displaces us before the Xiu Xiu-typical gothic fog has even rolled in. Stewart’s gloomy croon glides over us, recalling Peter Murphy of Bauhaus – its sex appeal justifying its dreary malevolence. Smith’s snarling raps weave throughout “The Call,” adding provocative discordance. Though the effect might not work on paper, it is successful in sound.

Despite being the record’s most melodic, even uplifting track, “Wondering” triumphs as Xiu Xiu’s most strident “fuck you;” defying their own experimental legacy with a glittering pop song. Only Xiu Xiu could write a song so infectiously catchy and dance-enhancing that you don’t realize the words you are singing along with…namely: “Down on your knees/Swallow defeat.” It may be muffled, distorted, and strange, but Xiu Xiu’s unconventional production doesn’t rob the track of any sweetness. Without a scrap of hyperbole, one might call “Wondering” among the best pop songs ever written.

It’d be hard to find another band that could inject this much variety into a single record, let alone an entire career the way Xiu Xiu has. Their leap from “Wondering” to the following cut “Get Up” is a classic example of their versatility. Where “Wondering” is no doubt a dance number, “Get Up” is a drowsy ballad akin to Cocteau Twins with its breathy synths and climbing arpeggios. But it isn’t all dream pop appeal – Stewart channels his inner game show host when he shouts, “Rise from the dead!” This is one small example of the impeccable, fleshed-out production throughout FORGET; its soundscape inhabited by so many deliberate and well-placed details.

Aside from “Wondering,” the highpoint of FORGET is the frantic and visceral “Jenny GoGo,” which pairs Stewart’s darker side against his own fragility – while somehow remaining a fabulous dance track. The production on “Jenny GoGo” is far more gritty than “Wondering,” but no less intricate. Stewart’s vocals volley between frail whispers and Suicide-like shrieks that split the frenzied air. If you dig the work of Alan Vega and Martin Rev, Fad Gadget, or Einstürzende Neubauten, this one’s for you.

FORGET’s most disparate song is the eight-minute closer, “Faith, Torn Apart,” which commences with chapel bells before slipping into a gloomy and sinister rejection of piety. Demonic voices, haunting chants, and atonal synths warble and hypnotize before Vaginal Davis reads a closing poem, presenting herself as a child of a war-torn country:

“…My bindi has been rubbed to the side/My frown is for always/My family will never see me again/My goofy jokes hide my goofy damnation/My giggles excuse what just happened/My tears and my drool are all the same/My fear is for one and all/My dead-end childhood is just beginning…”

“Faith, Torn Apart” takes more time to digest than the rest of the record, but is all the more rewarding once its played a few times.

Is the most remarkable thing about Xiu Xiu their ability to master and subvert the pop song? Is it their ability to maintain our attention after 15 years of intrigue? Or is it their devotion to exploring the depths of sound, humor, and human emotion – no matter how terrifying? Surely, it’s a greasy, sweet, curdled, and bloody blend encompassing all of the above.

LIVE REVIEW: Xiu Xiu @ Glasslands

Xiu Xiu Glasslands

Xiu Xiu Glasslands

As the driving force behind experimental art rock outfit Xiu Xiu, Jamie Stewart has been known to push boundaries. Constantly reinventing himself (and his music), Stewart’s eccentric and sometimes violent themes are what ties the project together most readily, his fragile shout the crux of the band’s bursting, bloody heart. His line-up of touring musicians rotates regularly, so one never knows what to expect from a Xiu Xiu show, and given Stewart’s prolific output–which has included an album of Nina Simone covers, a collage of Caribbean folk songs and field recordings, a Record Store Day four-LP best-of comp, and Xiu Xiu’s ninth studio album Angel Guts: Red Classroom in just under a year–unpredictability is part of what makes the project so fascinating.

At Glasslands last Saturday, Stewart appeared with pioneering percussionist Shayna Dunkelman by his side. As a duo, the two performed assaultive selections from Angel Guts with an almost frightening intensity; the heightened confusion of “Cinthya’s Unisex,” the awkward desire of “Black Dick,” the almost danceable glitch of “Stupid in the Dark”–these tracks typify the aim of Xiu Xiu’s newest album.

Thematically, there’s the unwavering look at racialized fetishes, the intersections of death and sex, and the dissolution of gender identity that have often appeared throughout Xiu Xiu’s catalogue. Angel Guts is based on a 1979 Japanese film of the same title. Both the album and the movie hinge on unsettling aspects of eroticism and human sexuality, and Stewart’s always been a master of communicating society’s most twisted impulses in his own idiosyncratic manner.

Sonically, Angel Guts is a percussive tour de force, so it makes sense that Stewart would enlist Dunkelman’s unique talents. The Brooklyn-based musician isn’t a drummer in the traditional sense, and that worked out well in interpreting these songs for the stage. She bashes cymbals with kind of antagonistic joy, while the melodic tones from her xylosynth punctured the rapid-fire mish mash from her electronic kit. Stewart created the fuzz, bleeps, bloops, and other electronic miasma roiling like stormy waves under the prow of his characteristically quavering voice.

That Xiu Xiu has become a percussion-focused project as of late is not just an extension of Angel Guts but also of Stewart’s extracurricular activities. He spent September in NYC collaborating with conceptual artist Danh Vō on a series of performances entitled “Metal,” which featured Xiu Xiu’s percussion syncopating with the sound of Thai gold pounders creating the golf leaf Vō’s uses as a medium in real time. Vō and Xiu Xiu also worked together to present “Kling Klang” at the Dumbo Arts Festival, attaching 999 bright-pink vibrators to Vō’s copper We The People installation. The NYC appearance was their only US show before embarking on a European tour that will extend throughout November.

Finishing the set with crowd favorites “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl” and “I Luv the Valley OH!” Xiu Xiu was rushed off stage with no encore to make way for the ensuing dance party at Glasslands. In lieu of playing more songs, an apologetic Stewart told a long joke about a child who idolized clowns; if only it could’ve morphed into “Clowne Towne” the punchline would’ve been far more satisfying. Though songs from much of Xiu Xiu’s back catalogue were absent, it was one of the most inspired, kinetic Xiu Xiu sets I’ve seen, and the times I’ve made it a point to bask in Stewart’s disconcerting presence have been many, stretching all the way back to the early aughts. As challenging as Xiu Xiu can be for some to digest, Stewart remains one of the most extraordinary and important musicians of the last fifteen years, and though you never know what to expect from him, it’s safe to say he’ll be pushing boundaries well into the next decade.