Review Summary: Xiu Xiu now have enough perfect 10 tracks for a greatest hits album.
Xiu Xiu - Women as Lovers
As humanity paves its way into the year 2008 AD, I don't think the most scintillating musical gesture would be covering Queen's "Under Pressure." At this point the track is familiar. My Chemical Romance has even covered it. Though I'd never say Xiu Xiu is late to the punch or unoriginal, on paper, their cover doesn't even add that much more to the current iterations of the classic pop track. Jamie Stewart is melodramatic and puts unusual inflections on his syllables and sustains, the song is given a looser and more freewheeling feel, and the track's recognizable bassline is almost a verbatim version of the original. Xiu Xiu's version doesn't seem to achieve anything that Gerard Way and MCR haven't already, right? In fact, My Chemical Romance is probably the most iconic melodramatic and bouncy band in music today (just eclipsing Coheed and Cambria). And though this comparison is apt on a microscopic level, the MCR and Xiu Xiu versions couldn't be more different. That's because while MCR is recreating a pop track, Xiu Xiu is reinventing it. In the same way Jamie Stewart stripped and reformed Tracey Chapman's "Fast Car," "Under Pressure" is a quavering, fragile indie piece instead of a pop punk ballad, showing that at some underlying level that can't be explained by musicological analysis, Xiu Xiu has a touch for redefining the way a listener will think and feel about music.
And despite this x-factor Xiu Xiu has going for them, I was left decidedly unmoved after their most recent album The Air Force
. After the lustrous A Promise
and Fabulous Muscles
, I was surprised that Xiu Xiu would write such an unchallenging album. None of the songs have insane, nails-on-a-chalkboard moments and the album has very few awesome, life-changing moments. It was about as vanilla of a release as Xiu Xiu could muster (though it was still really good). But now, on Women as Lovers
, as if in an effort to undo any suspicion that Xiu Xiu was becoming bland, Jamie Stewart et al. have once again led me to be overwhelmed by both the positives and negatives of their ambitious songwriting techniques. Songs like "F.T.W.," "Black Keyboard," and "Master of the Bump..." are beautiful in their ability to blend acoustic pop tones with fluttering electric flourishes, becoming instant classics in the Xiu Xiu repertoire. A song like "Guantanamo Canto" is almost disgusting, making me cringe as much as "Support Our Troops (Black Angels OH!)." The emotional and aural extrema of this album are similar to those of Xiu Xiu's better albums, making me love and hate in equal doses.
However, what about the other tracks on the album? The aforementioned "Under Pressure" is a fun and neat little cover that perfectly revives the album after its worst song. "You Are Pregnant, You Are Dead" is an oddly Zappaesque track with isorhythmic, homophonic vocal and xylophone lines. "The Leash" is a mix of dubstep and downtempo post-punk. "Child at Arms" is a minimalist vocal-driven piece with a crazy vocoded ending. "Puff and Bunny" is a touching but flat ballad. "Gayle Lynn" is a surprise slow-burner replete with horns and electronic organs. All of these tracks though, don't fulfill the initial promise set up on the first half of the album. Even the pop leanings of the opening track "I Do What I Want, When I Want" are never truly fulfilled as the listener gets to hear Xiu Xiu explore numerous sub-sub genres, but never return to their core skill set. Though I do have a soft spot for "Puff and Bunny" and "Gayle Lynne," the second half of the album is unmemorable and bland. There are "good" songs, but they seem to fall trap to the tepid aesthetic of The Air Force
. I wonder if I'd like Women as Lovers
better if the album had merely been arranged so that the goofier, less exciting tracks like "White Nerd" could have been hidden between stunner tracks like "Black Keyboard" and "Master of the Bump..."
Xiu Xiu is most admirable both at their most tender and explosive moments. To listen to "Master of the Bump..." and only receive Stewart's pained vocal performance and a lone guitar arrangement for three and a half minutes, but then end on a wailing, slow guitar solo is a masterclass in building and releasing emotional tension. Though I can't say this album has as many of these killer tracks as Xiu Xiu's previous albums, Women as Lovers
is a satisfying installment for fans of Xiu Xiu's singular style. The first half of the album slays, and I don't mind waiting through a few mediocre tracks to reach the sentimental end of the album. Women as Lovers
is flawed, but then again so are all of Xiu Xiu's albums. At the end of the day, no matter what I can say objectively about this album I still wilt with catharsis when I hear Stewart sustain the lyrics "the scorpion in our chests..." at 1:55 into "F.T.W." That is something that the My Chemical Romances of the world could never achieve, not even with a perfect album.