Xiu Xiu is an avant-garde synth-rock band from San Jose, CA that has been active since 2002. The band, that takes its name from a 1998 Chinese movie, has gone through multiple personnel changes since it was founded by Indestructible Beat of Palo Alto band mates Jamie Stewart and Cory McCulloch. The roster currently consists of Jamie Stewart (Vocals, Guitar, Synth) and Angela Seo (Guitar). The group has released 11 full-length albums, the first being Knife Play in 2002 on Kill Rock Stars and the most recent being Always in 2012 on Polyvinyl. Always was produced by Greg Saunier from Deerhoof and much like Xiu Xiu’s previous work, the album is earning critical praise while containing themes of social commentary. The group is currently touring Europe in support of Always.
If you've never identified as part of the artfully depressed spectrum -goth, emo, disgruntled theater kid etc.- it might seem a bit perplexing. Why would you want to stew all the time? Paradoxically, it can be kind of fun. Xiu Xiu is undeniably raw and dark, with chief songwriter Jamie Stewart bravely addressing topics like suicide and sexual abuse with a candor few can touch. The music isn't fun, but there's an undeniable sense of exhilaration and life mixed in with all the gloom and tragedy. Essentially the project of frontman Jamie Stewart, Xiu Xiu formed in San Jose, CA around 2000 and has released an impressive nine albums since then, all featuring Stewart's wavering, slightly deranged vocals and a propulsive post-punk sound.
Made up of thirteen dark, adventurous, and melodically developed rock songs, the group's newest effort, Always, is no exception. Lead track “Hi” is a perfect example of how Stewart mixes things up, beginning with Stewart croaking out lyrics like, “If you are wasting your life, say hi/ If you are alone tonight, say hi/ If you wish he should die, say hi, hi-hi, hi-hi.” Meanwhile, the instrumentation consists of a nearly dance-punk beat and a bouncy synth line while the lyrics proceed on to pitch-black (“if you have a stitch in your wrist say hi”). Xiu Xiu doesn’t exactly have the Smiths’ happy sounds/sad lyrics thing going -Joy Division is a much more relevant touchstone- but the song is pumped with a vitality that steers it from depressing territory. “Joey's Song” trades shock value for dramatics, building a lush 80s inflected track out of thick clouds of synth-strings and Stewart's phantom of the dive bar vocals. “Gul Mudin” is all over the place, combining spastic guitar, and a grab bag of other instrumentation, and some genuinely beautiful vocal work out of Stewart.
Xiu Xiu hasn't reinvented themselves on Always, but it's an excellent introduction to a style that they've been honing since the new millennium.