Xiu Xiu, Jamie Stewart’s passive-aggressive pop outfit, has long thrived on raw transitions from whispers to shrieks, from clean guitar tones to squeals of errant synth, from melody to melodrama. His work is a theater of contrasts that has spellbound hipsters, noizeniks, and emo kids for nearly a decade. The group played for a sweaty throng at Garfield Artworks a couple weeks ago as part of their annual autumn tour. Cloistered in the back of the jam-packed gallery, they carved out a concise medley of recent tracks with their collection of gongs, drums, keyboards, and whistles.
Xiu Xiu’s performances show that violence is the obverse side of intimacy, or even its precondition. In Stewart’s world, where overt emotions emanate from closeted tragedies, ironies are mourned, not smirked at. Were it not for his mad lyrical finesse, this whole messy Xiu Xiu affair would simply be over the top. But Stewart’s rage, remorse, and libido show themselves in palpable images that create narratives all by themselves: a glass heart clinking, a little girl with her head shot open, a deformed penis.
These images embody the tenderness and fury of Xiu Xiu with more efficacy than even Stewart’s on-stage histrionics. In fact, his stories enable his spectacle. In art, certainly, “nothing exists in itself”; it’s up to the writer to make real the contrasts that ultimately burn us to the ground or freeze us to death. Stewart does this with words, and takes it a step further, showing with his delivery that even our contrasts (male versus female, love versus hate, noise versus music) are fabrications, and wicked ones at that.
Noise groups like Yellow Swans and Prurient were well chosen as the preface to Xiu Xiu’s act. When plugged into a thicket of tabletop electronics, a guitar no longer acts like a guitar. In the hands of such groups, a plucked string will unleash a magma-bath of distortion for a half-minute after it’s been touched. It enacts sonic violence that is as captivating as it is impossible to trace. When Xiu Xiu take the stage, they give that dynamic a bitter heart, a nostalgic mind, and abused genitals. In their songs, the buried abjection of the past blossoms wretchedly in the present. Deceptive violence lurks in the band’s own name. One expects aural clutter from the articulation of the two capital “X”s in “Xiu Xiu,” but the name, when spoken, dissipates in the gentlest doubled hush: “shoo, shoo.”