Thursday, June 10, 2010
Lion in a Coma
Though his name isn’t familiar outside of indie, Jaime Stewart has spent the past decade as the main persona of the experimental-pop rock band Xiu Xiu (pronounced zhoo zhoo) and as a ringleader for the emo-rock movement. In many ways, he is the movement’s poet laureate and it takes its cues from his dark lyricism and subject palette. Of course, no movement can be held in sway by one person for too long and if Dear God, I Hate Myself is any indicator of Xiu Xiu’s future direction then Stewart’s reign is slowly coming to and end.
But, first we have to summarize what the band has achieved: Xiu Xiu’s music has remained totally uncompromising since their debut ten years ago. Stewart’s angst-ridden, queer lyrics craftily continue to expose a wounded psyche and combined with terrific pop beats it creates the type of music that only they seem capable of anymore.
Maybe then it is that weight of continuity that makes Dear God, I Hate Myself miss its own sardonic point. That of course is the point of being mired deliciously in self-depreciation. Instead, the lovely opening track (Gray Death) aside, it sounds more like a decade’s worth of album rejects and B side recordings that somehow never got completed. Coming off the cool-- yet not heavy critical embrace of-- Women as Lovers (2008) one felt the band was finally full circle. Everything was poised for a breakthrough.
It has not materialized however. I could give many different theories for this but the only one that sticks is Stewart’s great disappointment that no one really seemed to ‘get’ his last album. Thus, this new one isn’t titled as a personal reference but as a professional one. It is smattered with cynicism and unnecessary levels of morose insights. Instead of Stewart using his disappointment with determination he struggles for consistency throughout (for example, Chocolate Makes you Happy starts with riveting promise then tapers off way too easily). This is not with the album’s professed self-loathing but rather his dogged meandering. His interpretation of pop as a main tool of expression has always been fantastically abstract yet somewhat held back. Therefore, his whimsical lyrics have always played around the twin evils of abuse and unrequited desire but the last half of Dear God, I Hate Myself really drags because there’s no gay complexity or subtext present, just empty, boring space.
Which is a great indictment I know, but one that must be acknowledged before the band runs the risk of self-parody. Stewart remains-- amid this falling off--fascinating: his ticking time-bomb vocals still utter breathy non sequitors but the idealism of queer indie music keeps evolving whereas his has not. These kids now have FrYars and Patrick Wolf for affirmation so there is no further need for Stewart’s apparent resistance to change or adaptability to newer thematic ideas. How he got stuck in this holding pattern is not clear but it’s not as if the structural style of Xiu Xiu’s music has diverged greatly since their debut. Even their acclaimed Fabulous Muscles (2004) was very choppy despite having a much sharper personal focus.
Maybe what Stewart hasn’t realized yet is the extent of his collective’s development. Dear God, I Hate Myself never allows its production to subvert things beyond the point of recognition or his total control. So, both Impossible Feeling and This Too Shall Pass Away shut down well before lifting off into unchartered territory. That phrase, unchartered territory, is vital because Xiu Xiu is all Jaime Stewart, all the time so we’re not sure what their true capability lies outside of his doomed poetry. If Women as Lovers was the culmination of dark envy maybe it’s time for a second-party exploration or a break from the minimalistic sound they’ve used exclusively since The Air Force (2006). Lord knows we’ve marveled at his genius (The Leash, from the aforementioned Women as Lovers, is a terrifying piece of psycho-sexual brilliance) but now we’ve borne witness to this impasse. Not quite a step back but here is Stewart dawdling at the fork in the road, unsure where to next with us urging him from the sidelines to get on with it already and stop being such a pussy.
Sunday, June 6, 2010
I won’t lie to you, when I first realized that Have One on Me was a triple CD with a run time of two hours, my heart sank. Eighteen tracks on any album is a huge task for any reviewer to go through but Joanna Newsom is one of the few artists that demand such patience. This is a woman after all who used the line ‘and the meteoroid is a stone/ that’s devoid of the fire/ that propelled it/ to thee’ on her last album, the brilliant yet challenging Ys (2006). The level of intelligence lurking behind her lyrics ensures that you either get her totally or you don’t ever want to. That’s a very uncompromising statement but in a pop landscape where everything must be tackily Lady GaGa-ed or deploringly RiRi-ed just to grab your fleeting attention, it’s refreshing to hear someone bravely flipping the script. Spreading these songs over three portions, six tracks each, makes the task easier but make no mistake: the tail does not wag this dog.
Disc I contains four masterpieces. Easy, the opener is a wicked experiment that juxtaposes her lovely voice with strings and violins. ‘I am easy/ easy to keep/ honey, you please me/ even in your sleep’, she croons, channeling Kate Bush lusciously throughout. Instantly, it is clear that Newsom has lyrically arrived to contemporary themes instead of just dawdling on the medieval intricacies that Ys conceptualized. Have One on Me seismically shifts her inward to the point of incapability from herself. The title track combines both motifs; taking a beautiful leap at 1:45 into the thrilling life of Lola Montez and her affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria (lovingly called ‘Daddy Long legs’) to the point of being a novella. Then there’s Good Intentions Paving Company (‘and I will love you/ ’til the noise has long since passed/and that right there/is the course I keep…’), her most listener-friendly song ever. Both tracks run for a combined eighteen minutes but these are more than merely this year’s most brilliant musical theses; these are career highlights. Baby Birch builds its guilty abortion theme slowly with a hectic staccato burst of folk and overwhelming sadness. The unspooling of her craft here is particularly patient and masterful. These are songs that leave you in awe at their sheer perfection because this surely is the pinnacle of expressed human emotion.
Disc II is less dramatic as if deliberately cooling its heels. Her similarities to Joni Mitchell are reinforced here as she tackles various relationship issues that are sensually detailed. You and Me, Bess is Newsom tackling suicide as the backing vocals seep through along with horns on the chorus. In California stretches her into mid-love crisis and, in the process, puts her voice sharply in focus. This vocal vigor is her newest weapon and it is evenly distributed vis-à-vis her previous work which regulated her voice to mere spastic bursts. Have One on Me also dims the prominence of her harpsichord to embrace more alternative melodies. Quite a few critics mistake this for shapelessness but the structure that Newsom uses is deliberate. She isn’t experimenting but deepening her sound. Sure, she’ll toss off tracks like Go Long and Occident to placate those unwilling to accompany her to the depths of emotion but even those tracks are utterly beautiful and leave you wanting more.
Disc III feels like a combination of the two previous discs. Soft as Chalk is a fantastic track about ‘lawlessness’ that features some Tori Amos-esque piano strings and shrilly singing. ‘who is there/ who is there/ I am calling beyond anger/ and sadness’, she sings repeatedly amid an impressive instrumental set. Ribbon Bows returns her to the beloved harpsichord, this time shrouded in sadness that grows over its six minute length. Kingfisher is about a disturbing relationship, impressively retaining its lyrical freshness. Newsom spins her poetry with the sureness of a woman who is hearing a call most of us are not aware of but this makes Have One on Me a bold concept, one that renews faith in the album as a learning yet reflective experience.
This reinforces the point of albums still being relevant in an age that is determined to get rid of them. Triple albums have always been seen as a major artistic statement but perhaps none has ever been made to overpower the listener lyrically like this one. The beauty of Newsom is in her words: ‘like a little clock / that trembles/ on the edge of the hour…’ from the glorious In California. Autumn features the gem, ‘in the cold West/ flew a waxwing who falls/ and dies against my breast…’. And from the sad Does Not Suffice, ‘the tap of hangers/ swaying in the closet/ unburdened hooks and empty drawers/ and everywhere I tried to love you/ it is yours again/ and only yours…’.
Newsom has proven that there’s more, much more sadness yet to be etched from a pop singer’s
tongue. She makes it so because the record transcends music to become a stunning document that recalls some of the greatest literature. This is Pride & Prejudice for the 21st century. This is Alice Walker with headphones on and a pen. This is a feminine version of Brando demanding to be more than just a contender in On the Waterfront... the very thoughts trapped in Virginia Woolf’s head as she drowned in the Ouse. These are the painful admissions and personally rewarding moments we keep to ourselves still, laid bare by Newsom with such great detail that it renders her contemporaries toothless by comparison.
So, in the end while you balk at the thought of purchasing this chamber pop record or take the easy way out by avoiding it because you just can’t commit to its intensity, Newsom has yet again successfully pushed the boundaries of her art-form up a notch. She has forced us to view music as accessible yet incessantly clever. This feat mirrors the re-positioning of pop that Bjork achieved in the 1990s as well as the way M.I.A viciously detonated the genre with third-world consciousness a mere decade later. Newsom may never be seen as revolutionary as those women but that’s exactly where all this is heading. What she shares with them is a stubborn, singular vision that will have its way and succeed despite being antithetical to everything else around it. And while critics throw around comparisons to Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, the fact is that Newsom is, at last, their equal now, residing somewhere betwixt them all in a fantastic web of complexity. And in this defining process that lasts for two hours she has given us the most faith-affirming album of the year.