While mainstream rock 'n' roll music continues to weave its spell on the masses in its myriad forms, whether it's protest music, a form of high art, a form of tacky pop art, or just plain fun party music, there's always been a small group of albums huddled away in a murky corner of the rock pantheon, a sullen, miserable lot whose only raison d'être is to just sit there and be introspective and morose. Yes, we are talking about that ever-so desolate subgenre called the "Dark Night of the Soul" albums. Emotional, self-deprecating, and tearful, these albums are just as vital to rock music as any other, more popular style, and every serious music fan owns at least a couple of these wonderfully dreary mopefests, whether it's The Velvet Underground's self-titled third album, Joni Mitchell's Blue, Nick Drake's Pink Moon, American Music Club's terrific albums from the early '90s, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral, Beck's 2002 album Sea Change, or the mother of all Dark Night of the Soul albums: Neil Young's masterful Tonight's the Night.
Xiu Xiu (pronounced "shoe shoe") want a part of that action.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who heard Xiu Xiu's debut album, Knife Play, and felt ambivalent about it. Whether positive or negative, people's reactions to the work of this experimental post-punk band seem to be invariably passionate. Since their beginning in late 2000, Xiu Xiu have made music that people have loved madly (a month of daily mail deliveries of knitted pink heart underpants covered in blood) or hated feverishly (getting punched in the chest after a show in Houston).
The group took its name (pronounced "shoe shoe") from the 1998 Joan Chen-directed film Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl. Led by singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart and framed by Cory McCulloch’s producer talent, the group has a rotating roster of musicians with guests e.g. from Deerhoof, Mr. Bungle, Duster, and The Dead Science.
Xiu Xiu's music is painfully autobiographical, morose, and histrionic, and is deeply influenced by modern classical, improvisation, British pop and post-punk, techno beats, and, well, the gamelan orchestra (most prevalent on the EP Chapel of the Chimes). The US edition of their debut Knife Play came with a cover sticker featuring the following: "When my mom died, I listened to Henry Cowell, Joy Division, Detroit techno, The Smiths, Takemitsu, Sabbath, Gamelan, Black Angels, and Cecil Taylor." While this remark may seem initially inscrutable, in fact it tells you just about all you need to know for a starting point.
But whereas most contemporary bands funnel their influences into a sound that openly exposes its derivations, Xiu Xiu's influences aren't so noticeable. While it's tough to say that any band today is truly original, Xiu Xiu come close, gathering their inspiration from post-punk's junkyard and melding it into a strikingly distinct product. Furthermore, they challenge conceptions of what is appropriate for pop music. When the contradictory elements of their music come together--abrasive sounds against hypnotic melodies, naked emotion that exposes every vulnerability while also displaying a shocking confidence, humor and despair, beauty and ugliness,--the result is either so disorienting, it's repulsive or so arresting, it's irresistible.