Some degree of suspension of disbelief is pretty much compulsory when you go to see Xiu Xiu. You will stand there as Jamie Stewart and band, which in this iteration is just Angela Seo, set up equipment, look confused, tweak knobs and ask the soundman in polite California English whether the monitors are turned on. After a few minutes, there’ll be a thumbs up to the soundman.
And then the curtains raise. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Stewart goes from 0 to something approaching Noh theatre in about 3 seconds flat. With the self-confidence of someone who’s been declaiming self-loathing over alternating pop, noise and silence for about a decade, he opens with the quietest song imaginable, plucking sparse chords and whispering with a violently pained expression on his brow.
Whelans drops to silence. You can hear Kasabian or Primal Scream or whatever, drifting in ambiently from the front bar. Stewart is impervious. Audience obedience and rapt attention established ab initio, it just means that when the noise does come (and the noise will always come), it’s going to wreak that much more damage.
This happens with Gray Death, the opener and first single off Dear God I Hate Myself. It’s hard to describe the absolute presence of Xiu Xiu live – I can say they’re intense, they’re heavy on a gravity’s pull type level, they’re absolutely earnest, but it doesn’t conjure up what it’s actually like.
Listening to my new favourite lines in the Xiu Xiu canon, “If you’re expecting consolation, I will become outrageous/If you expect me to be outrageous, I will be extra-outrageous”, I thought of two things. One, this is a different type of outrage to Ashley Cole’s pants and Iris Robinson’s Calvinist satan incarnate. It’s an obsolete concept, but a lot of Xiu Xiu’s appeal is in what is DOES, beyond thought, in the hackles it raises once you’ve submitted to the desolate self-pity. Two, I tried to think of what various friends would think if they were there. Would they be as bowled over by the sheer weight of the thing, or would they just think he was being ridiculous?
Right after Gray Death came the title track of the album. If those friends weren’t able to take Gray Death, they definitely wouldn’t manage Dear God I Hate Myself, the lines of the chorus elongated to differentiate them from the recorded version as if to say “I am not just singing this, I am saying it”. It actually approaches being hard to watch at times, but if it’s not cathartic for Stewart, it’s cathartic to watch.
Without Caralee McElroy (who left to play in Cold Cave), Ches Smith and Devin Hoff (who are possibly just not on this tour), a set of only new material wouldn’t have been that surprising, but lo, there was Boy Soprano. And there, absolutely rampant in its noisy new incarnation, was the closest thing Xiu Xiu have to a hit, I Luv The Valley OH!
Complete with its scream “OH!”
Couldn’t really ask for more, except for maybe an encore. Jamie doesn’t seem to do encores though. His wave goodbye seemed enthusiastic, grateful and extremely spazzy, but when he and Angela did eventually re-emerge, it was to plug shit out.
Still, this is something properly unique, still in its prime. So no complaints here.