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It's a Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad World: Xiu Xiu seeks the melancholy.

Boo Who

Xiu Xiu takes sad and makes it beautiful

By Traci Vogel

IT ISN'T DIFFICULT to find sadness in the suburbs. Its hiding places are obvious, banal, sometimes even grotesque. Find the single shoe in the garbage: Sad. Read the other side of the highway exit sign: silvery sadness. Hold the mall receipt up to the streetlight: sadness bleeds through.

No surprise, then, that art arising from the suburbs so often either subverts the sadness into irony or bright anger or gives into it ineloquently. The members of Xiu Xiu, who hail from San Jose, have decided to give in to it, even to seek it out. They borrow their band name (pronounced, the press kit says, "shoe shoe or show show but never zoo zoo") from "the title of the most depressing movie ever, Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl."

Xiu Xiu takes up depression where the Cure left it. In fact, singer Jamie Stewart, who has recorded with members of Devo, the Screamers and Robert Fripp, sounds a lot like Robert Smith. He has one of those voices that wanders from peaks of hysteria through plateaus of gravelly sobriety with equal surefootedness. Stewart's voice is also, like Smith's, surprisingly powerful, competing melodically with what qualifies as a tapestry of music from the band: a weaving of keyboard, distorted guitars, synthesizers, harmonium, drums, even bells and other unidentifiable piercing metallic sounds. Stewart is singing in favor of alienation; he doesn't want to soothe you. Sadness is not going to be banished from this block party. Sadness happens.

Stewart's lyrics pack up this sadness in short breathy lines that often end with great incongruities. The song "I broke up (SJ)," from their first full-length CD, Knife Play, starts, "It was not posed/ It messed me up/ It was her recording herself whisper/ What's it worth to me/ Thinking one thought/ The advice to be OK," and evolves by the end into "This is the worst vacation ever/ I am going to cut open your forehead with a roofing shingle." What makes this transition work is its roil from woeful to violently hopeless, tended to by its buzzing soundtrack.

In fact, as is so often true with melancholy, there is something of the cinematic to Xiu Xiu. The music could act as background to scenes of lovers parting, or a jealous lover's insanity. Its complexity is narrative. It sets up pockets of drama, then swells to almost excruciating pitches of epiphany. Sometimes it seems appropriate to a horror film, pathologically haunted, like a Muzak orchestra gone mad.

Through it all, Stewart's voice is the ghost in the machine. Xiu Xiu's best stuff happens when Stewart gets to be quieter, such as on the track "What Chu' Talkin' About," in which he haltingly sings, "Tell me why they hurt you like that/I can't see how you go on," then repeats the iffy chorus, "Tonight and today," with a slight stutter. His only accompaniment is a keyboard, and the static of background, almost a white noise like a rainstorm.

Xiu Xiu have been picked up by Kill Rock Stars' sister label, 5 Rue Christine, a label KRS started to promote "difficult" music, music that challenges and demands some work from the listener. Knife Play will be out in February. The label seems like a perfect home for Xiu Xiu. Welcome home, sadness.

Jamie Stewart plays solo Nov. 2 at 7pm at the Outhouse, 4 New York Ave., Los Gatos, with Fiver, Lenola, and Velvet Teen. Xiu Xiu plays Nov. 4 at 328 Rigg St. in Santa Cruz with Jim Yoshii Pile Up, Continental and Sin in Space, and Nov. 9 at Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, with Hella, the Lies, Contrail and Teeth.

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From the November 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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