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Xiu Xiu - Women As Lovers

Released on Kill Rock Stars, 1/29/08

Xiu Xiu albums always have the unpleasant job of balancing mastermind Jamie Stewart's addiction to experimentation. To Stewart's endearing credit, his ideas often warp into a perfect noise shape, and that's why I love his bizarre menagerie of sounds and words.

Women As Lovers, the new Xiu Xiu record, is the most balanced album since 2004's Fabulous Muscles. It doesn't rely on tinny electronics, whispered vocals, or noise, all elements that have overwhelmed past albums. Instead, Stewart molds all these elements into strong songs.

He's still an outsider weirdo, but he's channeling his oddities better. The track "F.T.W." sounds like a Books song, thanks to layers of soft, precise, and non-dissonant sounds. "The Leash" incorporates organic-sounding electronic elements, recalling John Vanderslice's tape-based recording projects. There's even a gorgeous cover of Queen's "Under Pressure" featuring Michael Gira. This is great stuff.

Then there is the outer rim of Stewart's ideas, for which I give him credit, but can't always wrap around. "Child At Arms" might be the weirdest Xiu Xiu song ever -- a tall order, to be sure. There's a banjo (maybe), vocal effects, screeching and scraping, and a flute played through a distortion pedal. This track sounds haunted…as well as convoluted.

"White Nerd" fails for other reasons, a vaguely "alt-rock" and conventional song with Stewart moaning the hook "white nerd/ you let us down" atop practice-amp guitar tone. Stewart might feel insecure about the linearity of the song, which would explain the superfluous squibbles of noise. That said, the song features a great lyrical image of "girls spilling their Percoset out on the lava flow."

The lyrics stay unusual and charmed throughout. It's a joy to be able to make out what Stewart is saying. One of my favorite tracks is "In Lust You Can Hear The Axe Fall", a song propelled by eighth note string stabs and crashing percussion, which give out in a blink, leaving only Stewart's warble and a soft, clean guitar. He's singing, "…crush an ashtray into your breast." I guess some madness is amusing.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars