from a whisper to a scream

i can't recall the moment i first heard xiu xiu or what exactly motivated me to do so. i know there was an article on them in the beautifully-designed copper press, but they didn't initially strike me as much different from the kind of indie, post-rock and math-rock bands they tend to cover. the band pictures looked like some ordinary indie kids goofing around. but somehow, something about them me made me decide to investigate further. maybe it was the description of their lyrics as being based on the real-life horror stories of leader jamie stewart and his friends and family. i'm no fan of reality shows or car crashes, but i can always appreciate naked honesty and deep expression of emotions. and xiu xiu gives you that to the nth degree. that, and music alternately influenced by barren folk music, gamelan percussion, and cheesy techno, as well as the smiths and joy division. a few mp3 clips later and i ordered their entire catalog and bought a ticket to their show last fall. that event was marred by sound problems that ground the proceedings to a halt twice, but my friends and i were determined to see them again. so a few fridays ago, i once again dragged josh and angel to the knitting factory.

xiu xiu are nothing if not self-sufficient. once a quartet, live they've been pared down to a duo, each of them handling multiple roles. only two people play acoustic and electric guitars, electric mandolin, synthesizer, harmonium, tuned finger bells, and a plethora of percussion, sometimes using a synth/sequencer/drum machine as a backdrop. they set up four chairs behind them, each with an amplifier on it taking care of their multiple monitoring issues.

with all this gear onstage you'd think it would be more of a technological than a visceral experience. not so. with each song, stewart focused past his change in setup and delivered passionate vocals, literally from whispers to screams. at times the arrangement was so cacophonous you'd think they had both new order and einsturzende neubauten backing them up. then just as easily, they'd do a ballad with only 2 quivering voices and a softly strummed guitar.

xiu xiu are one of those bands that no matter how many times you listen to their music, it sounds like the first time.

the title of this post comes from a song by elvis costello.