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Xiu Xiu

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who heard Xiu Xiu's debut album, Knife Play, and felt ambivalent about it. Whether positive or negative, people's reactions to the work of this San Jose experimental/post-punk quartet seem to be invariably passionate.

The group formed in 2000 and took its name (pronounced "shoe shoe" or "show show" but never "zoo zoo") from the 1998 Joan Chen-directed film Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, according to the band "the most depressing movie." Knife Play came with a cover sticker featuring a quote by the group's mercurial leader, vocalist Jamie Stewart, which read: "When my mom died, I listened to Henry Cowell, Joy Division, Detroit techno, The Smiths, Takemitsu, Sabbath, Gamelan, Black Angels, and Cecil Taylor." While this remark may seem initially inscrutable, in fact it tells you just about all you need to know. Xiu Xiu's music is painfully autobiographical, morose, and histrionic, and is deeply influenced by modern classical, improvisation, British pop and post-punk, techno beats, and, well, the gamelan orchestra.

So what does this sound like? Well Xiu Xiu certainly has more than a little in common with their friends Deerhoof, attacking established pop idioms with a savant's genius, inverting them and reclaiming them in fascinating if sometimes disorienting ways. But note also the presence of Sabbath, Joy Division, and The Smiths in the above list. Even while Xiu Xiu turns the post-punk paradigm on its head, approaching it from a modern composition perspective that results in all kinds of weird cut-ups, juxtapositions, classical instrumentation, and unexpected arrangements, the comic but dead-serious nihilism of the seminal bands referenced by Stewart pervades Xiu Xiu's music. Alternating between screaming tantrums and wavery whispers in a voice that recalls classic goth vocalists like Robert Smith and Peter Murphy, Stewart offers jaw-droppingly personal disclosures that belie the music's more academic influences. This tension between cerebral abstraction and visceral emotion is at the heart of the music's intrigue.

Xiu Xiu recorded Knife Play in 2001 with guests from Deerhoof, Mr. Bungle, and Duster, and released it early the next year on 5 Rue Christine (CD) and Absolutely Kosher Records (vinyl). Later in 2002, the quartet issued a stark EP titled Chapel of the Chimes, named presumably for the historic Julia Morgan chapel in Oakland. It features four strange and entrancing structure-defying collisions of disparate sounds, including gamelan bells and gongs, post-punk synth lines, programmed beats, traditional rock instrumentation, and of course, Stewart's hair-raising tenor. Also featured is a funny, borderline demented cover of Joy Division's "Ceremony."