Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore Xiu Xiu. For nearly a decade, the Bay-area art-poppers have been cultivating an original voice among crops of indistinguishable peers.

Maureen Sullivan
You could never bleach out their dark souls. (Courtesy of Kill Rock Stars)

Xiu Xiu’s polarizing effect on indie-rock audiences has everything to do with lead songwriter Jamie Stewart’s inimitable, often jarring vocal calisthenics, as well as his penchant for the darker of human inclinations. Women as Lovers, the latest album, marks the band’s sixth record. Its most self-assured, precise and mature release since 2004’s breakthrough Fabulous Muscles, Women as Lovers also serves as a testament to a shifting musical climate.

If Women as Lovers is, as many suggest, more accessible than previous Xiu Xiu records, it has little to do with any artistic compromise on the band’s behalf. Innovative as ever, Stewart and company abandon all use of digital programming and sequencing – a previous staple of the band since its incarnation. As a result, every melted chime, R2-D2 blurp and vocal howl sounds organic and fresh.

The brilliant opener “I Do What I Want, When I Want,” with its eerie hook, hummable vibraphone flourishes and acrobatic saxophone counterpoint is remarkable. Blurring the line between carelessness and perfectionism, Xiu Xiu exudes a newfound confidence in its craft.

What has remained intact is Stewart’s reputation as a wordsmith. Within 14 tracks, Stewart spins lyrics as unsettling as “make-up on pimples” (“White Nerd”) and descriptions as pseudo-Shakespearean as “the scorpion in our chests cuts the word to scar powerlessness” (“F.T.W.”). He’s only expanding on what he’s already mastered: spiraling narratives of increasing depth and terror.

Thankfully, Stewart doesn’t shy from his pop sensibilities offering a unique contrast and much needed relief to many of the emotionally cumbersome lyrics on the album. “No Friend Oh!” is, albeit without much competition, the catchiest pop ditty about homosexual pedophilia ever written. Its magic, like on the epic pop of album closer “Gayle Lynn,” is the complementary duet of Stewart’s hazy baritone and bandmate/cousin Caralee McElroy’s whisper-soft soprano.

What Women as Lovers exemplifies in maturity, however, it lacks in cohesion. As a result of Xiu Xiu’s boundless ambition for variation, there is little conversation between most tracks. While a general mood may pervade the record, a few songs feel a bit more important than others. For example, the cover of the Queen/David Bowie classic “Under Pressure,” featuring the sultry and understated vocals from Angels of Light’s Michael Gira, is relatively creative and worthy of the original but it undermines the album’s originality – it feels more like an outtake.

Still, Women as Lovers seems poised to reach an even larger audience than Xiu Xiu’s previous outings. The miraculous growth of listeners more willing to stretch their ears to the likes of Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors suggests this possibility more than Xiu Xiu’s own merits. But that’s just silly – the best records always find ways to argue with a listener despite reservations. Women as Lovers grapples in this fashion and Xiu Xiu doesn’t show any signs of letting go.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Xiu Xiu

Women as Lovers

Kill Rock Stars

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