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A Year in the Life

Xiu Xiu's music is a sign of the times

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Xiu Xiu's percussion-heavy compositions are dramatic and strange.

Driven by singer/songwriter Jamie Stewart's lyrics, which are full of striking and terrifying imagery, the music documents the emotional textures of Stewart and his band's lives, incorporating everything from clovers made of lead swallowed by lovers to show the desperation and heavy burden of a dying relationship ("Clover"), to arrows shot up anuses to make a dramatic political statement ("Saturn").

As Stewart explained, the difference between his band's new album, La Forèt (5RC), and previous albums, is always the same thing: "Each record that we've done is about the events in the lives of the people who made the record and the politics at the time that the record was being made, so the last record was about that year, and this record is about this year," said Stewart.

Synthesizers create a cacophony of noise; the harmonium hums frantically, and Stewart doesn't so much sing as perform his lyrics; on "Saturn," he whispers and takes deep breaths between the lines, "George, when it comes to bedtime / my sweetness will not go to waste / I will shoot this arrow right up anus and / you'll taste what we taste." The combination of that performance and the percussive onslaught of sound creates a sense of utter desperation, and it's not difficult to deduce who "George" may be.

The political overtones of the record are hard to ignore, and this subject matter, said Stewart, just happens to work its way into his lyrics because it's on his mind. "(The political aspect) definitely cannot be overlooked, but it just happened," explained Stewart. "Just because, as with most people who are not completely, entirely greedy or have a racist, murderous bent, it's kind of a preoccupying thought."

This kind of understatement combined with hyperbole is everywhere in Xiu Xiu's music, and this tension between the two is what gives Xiu Xiu their dramatic and strange feel. "Shut up, shut up / I want to hear that pin pricking," Stewart whispers on "Ale" as a clarinet and a bass clarinet quietly play a melody and the percussion pings. It verges on the edge of being over-the-top, like a parody of beat poetry performances, but when Stewart whispers lines like "Shut up shut up," the dramatics are contained. It almost seems like the vocals are intentionally subdued so that more emphasis is placed on them, but as Stewart said when asked if that was intentional, "I wish that I was that devious."

There does seem to be a definite connection between the emotion being documented in the lyrics and the music itself, as if the music is fueled by the force of the words being performed and generated through them. Said Stewart, "We kind of on purpose try not to really overthink that sort of thing, but in an attempt to not to overthink it, you're inherently overthinking it." Despite this attempt to not "overthink" this connection, Stewart explained that although the words are not written out before the music is composed, the subject matter is on Stewart's mind.

"Almost never do the lyrics come before the music," said Stewart, "but it will either be that the music is done but I know what the lyrics are going to be about, and will then write the lyrics, or they'll be happening at the same time and start, in light of each other, to make sense."

Subsequently, the songs are not structured like traditional pop or rock songs--there are no choruses, no bridges, just subtle builds of sounds and patterns and textures. The band is heavily influenced by the gamelan tradition of Indonesia, where melodies are created through percussion. "No one in the band actually knows how to play gamelan specifically, so I don't want to make it seem as if we're totally insanely talented professionals or anything like that," clarified Stewart. But, "We're really, really deeply influenced by how that sort of music is put together."

Put together, the songs document anger, frustration and indignation, and many of the images lend themselves to sharp discontent with the current political situation. "A wasp will find its way into your / pointless life / its stinger will sting you away... Jesus is wondering / if even He can love you," Stewart sings on "Pox."

Although violent and metaphoric, the images on La Forèt are meant to cause a reaction.

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