A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 18, 2008
Here’s some of the craziest but most enticing music I’ve heard in a long time. Women as Lovers, the new album by northern California avant-garde rockers Xiu Xiu, pushes boundaries I didn’t even know were there. And the band will be pushing them in Santa Fe at a Monday night, April 7, show at the College of Santa Fe.
Xiu Xiu (pronounced “shoe shoe”) might remind listeners of the San Francisco band Deerhoof. The two bands have collaborated in the past, and Deerhoof’s drummer and keyboardist Greg Saunier plays on Women as Lovers. I also detect a certain kinship with another San Francisco experimental rock band, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. There’s a similarity in some of the batty sounds, although Xiu Xiu’s music lacks the lighthearted, goofball quality of the Thinking Fellers. And then there’s Mr. Bungle, another Bay Area weirdo, kitchen-sink band. Xiu Xiu’s Ches Smith was a member of that group.
Singer Jamie Stewart has one of those morose, sobbing, 4 a.m.-suicide voices that sometimes get on my nerves (he’s been compared with The Cure’s Robert Smith). Stewart’s voice gives a definite gravity to Xiu Xiu’s eccentric, eclectic musical assault, which can include sax, vibraphone, chimes, banjo, flute, harmonium, glockenspiel, bells and whistles, all sorts of electronic gadgetry, and — on their best songs — loud, maniacal drumming.
Xiu Xiu songs have a way of sneaking up on you. The opening tune, “I Do What I Want, When I Want,” has a slow, plodding, ominous beat, punctuated by what sounds like kazoos. Eventually the song drifts into a strange section of whistles and gongs, like an amusement park boat ride drifting into a forbidden area of It’s a Small World, and by the end there’s a wild, jazzy sax (by guest Howard Wiley).
Sometimes the lyrics are as bizarre as the music. “Crush a pastry into your breast ... crush an ashtray into your breast,” Stewart croons on “In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall.”
But don’t think they’re not serious. “Black Keyboard” deals with child sexual abuse in a direct and shocking manner. “Why would a mother say such things? Why add tongue to a kiss good night?” Stewart sings over an acoustic guitar.
Xiu Xiu takes a stab at politics with “Guantanamo Canto,” which in spots sounds almost like a Javanese gamelan piece. “My country needs this freedom to contradict your humanness,” Stewart sings. One of the highlights of the album is a cover of David Bowie’s and Queen’s “Under Pressure” that features guest vocals by Swans’ Michael Gira and Wiley’s explosive sax.
Sometimes the slower songs on Women as Lovers get way too shoegazey for my tastes. “Master of the Bump” (“If you say my dancing is effeminate I will never dance again.”) is about a guy whose masculinity is being questioned. I guess the slow, weepy arrangement is supposed to reinforce those questions. And I might have fallen asleep during “Black Keyboard” had that first line, quoted above, not jolted me so. I vastly prefer the full New Year’s Eve-in-the-nuthouse mode, with the vibes clinking, drums crashing, horns blaring, and synths screeching.
Women as Lovers demands repeat listens. You’ll discover new textures and unexplored corridors almost every time you play it.
Xiu Xiu, with opening act Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down, is scheduled to play at the College of Santa Fe SUB, in St. Michael’s Hall, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive, at 8 p.m. on Monday, April 7. The show is free for CSF students and $8 at the door for the rest of us. Call 473-6217 for information.
Say it ain’t so, Tony!
Here’s some shocking news from state government: Tony Orlando is no longer a New Mexico music commissioner.
During a recent shake-up on the New Mexico Music Commission, Mr. “Knock Three Times” didn’t see the yellow ribbon ’round the ole oak tree, so he stayed on the bus and kept riding. He was one of about a dozen members of the 26-person commission who was replaced at the beginning of the year. Strangely, there was no press release announcing the changes.
Speaking of strange, the appointment of Orlando to the state panel in 2005 was one of the most mysterious appointments of the whole Richardson administration. Orlando doesn’t live in New Mexico. He’s not from New Mexico. He doesn’t play here much, not even the casinos. He’s never recorded any songs by Al Hurricane or Joe West. He hasn’t had a hit in almost 30 years. And, of course, he never attended any commission meetings or did anything to advance New Mexico music as far as anyone could tell.
Still, I’m going to miss the cheap punch lines he often provided me with.
Here’s the good news: the new commissioners include a gaggle of New Mexicans actually involved in music here. Among them are a couple of Santa Fe folk who have done great work with the community in general as well as with musicians — Ana Gallegos y Reinhardt, the force behind Warehouse 21, and David Lescht, who started the Outside In, which has brought good music to nursing homes and hospitals and provided guitar lessons to kids in jail.
One drawback with Gallegos y Reinhardt and Lescht: neither ever hosted a weekly variety show in the ’70s on national TV. But with a little encouragement, I’ll bet they can overcome this handicap.
The Music Commission, with or without Tony, has been busy. It’s responsible for a television show called New Mexico Southwest Sounds that airs on KOAT-TV, Channel 7. (The last one featured Jimmy Stadler, Micky Cruz, Wayne Johnson, and Poor Man’s Ferrari.) You can see videos of past shows HERE
And, according to commissioner George Adelo, commission executive director Nancy Laflin referred the producers of the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men to musician Michael Sanchez, who wrote a mariachi song used in the movie.
The commission has a good Web site too: CLICK HERE.
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