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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Xiu Xiu
Life And Live

Rating: 7.5/10 ?

March 8, 2006
Someone in the audience coughs during "Sad Pony Guerilla Girl" and the muted echo, bouncing off the gray walls of whatever mausoleum Xiu Xiu is playing that night, is audible. The room is so quiet that seemingly any disturbance, no matter how innocuous, could throw the earth off its axis. But it doesn't. It's like throwing a rock in a pond and with no resulting no ripple, not even a splash. That's the kind of intensely focused listening Xiu Xiu inspires.

You sit, not wanting to move a muscle, even as the hard honesty of Jamie Stewart's lyrics, delivered with a chilling tremble in his voice, cuts you to the quick. Somehow, Stewart has crept past the guards into that prison of your soul where you keep your secret shame locked away, and freed it. Sirens wail and spotlights roam the compound. Bloodhounds strain at their leashes trying to track the scent, but it's out there now, in full view on your treacherous face for everyone to see. And yet, nobody notices. That's because they're all just as panicked and self-absorbed as you.

A listing of venues did not accompany Life And Live, a stark, mostly acoustic collection of 15 live songs recorded when Jamie Stewart toured North America twice as a solo artist under the Xiu Xiu pseudonym. The atmosphere, almost suffocatingly close, feels tense and charged with emotion, as if every show was an AA meeting held in a church basement or a regular session of a survivors of violent crime support group. Stewart has the rapt attention of the brooding intelligensia and troubled souls, who are all sitting very still, clapping politely at the end of each song and leaving the show bothered, bewildered and yet somehow comforted by what they've heard.

Life And Live is full of humanity. It pours out of Stewart's voice like blood from slashed wrists, and the album's well-plotted sequencing presents a palette of emotions that Stewart throws against the canvas in a Jackson Pollock rage. There's a harrowing version of "Jennifer Lopez," complete with nervy, dissonant electronic hum, Stewart's anguished screams, and crazed thrum that angrily lashes out after a brief, wood-toned cover of The Smith's "Asleep" and just before a gently plucked, shaken version - the second of two - of "20,000 Deaths For Eidelyn Gonzales, 20,000 Deaths For Jamie Peterson." Throughout Life And Live, the soft, delicate instrumentation makes Stewart's vocals stand out in sharp relief, his fearful whistle and scared whisper heightening the tension of the terrifying second go-round for "20,000 Deaths ... " here.

"Sad Pony Guerilla Girl," with its biting lyrics of sexual confusion, identity loss, infidelity, and homosexual desire - the giant elephant in the room with every Xiu Xiu release - gets an appropriately pained, gentle electric guitar treatment that somehow draws inspiration from both Buddy Holly and Morrissey. Stewarts scats wildly into the microphone midway through and then settles down to calmly deliver the line, "I like my neighborhood/I like my gun/drive in my little car/I am your girl and I will protect you" before a violent, bloodletting strum frenzy ensues, finishing the beast like a matador's sword. Stewart walks off to loud clapping and whoops from the audience, and deservedly so.

For sheer intimacy, "Brooklyn Dodgers" trumps the rest of the album, though it sounds more like a bedroom recording with its buzzing electronica and that same slow, methodical acoustic picking heard throughout Life And Live. It's agonizing to hear how Stewart sketches out some tracks, like his dull reading of the first "20,000 Deaths ... ," where it almost sounds as if Stewart is improvising the notes, carrying the guitar like an afterthought as his histrionic voice draws out the melody. A more substantial, yet similarly paced, replica of "Sad Redux-OGrapher" follows, with Stewart's electric guitar digging its teeth into the soft flesh of the song just a little harder for a more satisfying, richer tonality. The depth of his acoustic phrasing is stunning in "Dr. Troll," lending more ache and longing, if that's possible, to an already touching, bittersweet drawing of a girl shackled to her hopes and the misery that comes when her love isn't returned in full.

The world can be a very bad place and Stewart paints its hardships in evocative detail. The etchings are sharper on Life And Live, where Stewart deconstructs his works to the point of nakedness, especially on the first of two versions of "I Broke Up." It's incredible to see an artist so willing to appear so vulnerable on stage. Twice, he and Devandra Banhart - did I forget to mention Stewart recorded these songs with the new hero of minimalist folk? - mess up and have to start over. Their banter, short and to the point, all business and not at all funny, is kept here, giving you more of a sense of how meticulous they were about the sound and their performances.

Humor is in short supply, however there is a bit of off-stage dialogue that shows another side of Stewart. Warm and funny in conversation, Stewart doesn't shrink from the light like a vampire. You hear a more relaxed Stewart in excerpts from "Thanks Japan!" A self-described acoustic diary of a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, "Thanks Japan!" shows Stewart sharing bouts of silliness with his companions and the natives. Enjoy it while it lasts, because the rest of Life And Live is dark and violent, and not at all fun.

Without a doubt, Life And Live is the one of the most uncomfortable, graphic live albums ever. Warts and all, it's a compelling, if difficult, listen. Stewart's directness stings and his bruised guitar hurts, especially in the lovely, tender "Helsabot." My biggest complaint is that Life And Live basically ignores Fabulous Muscles, undoubtedly Xiu Xiu's most accomplished work. Aside from a heavy interpretation of "Nieces Pieces," with its sinking, shipwrecked cello hitting the ocean floor with a thud, there's nothing. To his credit, though, Stewart doesn't just give the audience what it wants. Perhaps that's a bit self-indulgent, but fuck it, he's his own man and if he goes a bit over the top with his vocal hysterics, it's a forgivable offense.

Reviewed by Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he\'ll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other reviews by Peter Lindblad



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