Xiu Xiu – Chapel of the Chimes EP

Xiu Xiu
Chapel of the Chimes EP

Truth in reviewing time. Yer average webzine reviewer is not the paragon of objective virtue that you may think. Indeed, many of us harbor evil prejudices about the most obscure things, and Xiu Xiu managed to hit a few of mine. 1- They have a song called “Jennifer Lopez” (does her name even need to be mentioned again, ever?) 2- They do a Joy Division cover (Joy Division were really the only band who should have been in the business of recording Joy Division songs) 3- The press information that came with their CD mentions Robert Smith (one of the single most overrated frontmen ever, next to Mark E Smith). So, as you can imagine, I put this on in a less-than-charitable mood, and was proven horribly wrong. Xiu Xiu are arrestingly original, refreshingly odd, and succeed in spite of (or maybe because of) their pretensions. I love it when I’m wrong.
“I am the Center of Your World,” the first track, throws you for an immediate loop. A fast, distant drum machine beat goes on for nearly 15 seconds before being joined by a sad, out-of-tune piano, and the singer’s wavering voice is so very far up in the mix as to make the listener jump. There’s another pause, followed by an immense “dropping kitchen implements into a steel tub” percussion section. All kinds of elements then fade in and out: bass, piano, a few plucked strings of indeterminate origin. The vocals remain too far out in the mix, forcing almost everything else into the background. Everything then stops cold, with almost no sense of resolution.
Production plays a large part in the Xiu Xiu sound. “Jennifer Lopez” gets a sense of menace from having a keyboard overdriven to the point of distortion, while the vocalist is buried in the bursts of sound; yet the percussion and string parts remain clear. (I have no idea what the heck the song is actually about; the vocals are impossible to discern). Xiu Xiu clearly are not afraid to use production almost like an instrument. They mix the well-recorded with the overdriven, throwing in junkyard percussion at odd points in the songs. None of this sounds accidental or unplanned; Xiu Xiu move with a purpose on each track, and the effects can overwhelm emotionally. On “Ten-Thousand-Times-a-Minute,” the drones and scrapes add up to a sense of isolation and gloom, which fit nicely with the barely sung vocals.
This isn’t easy music, and it’s likely to polarize listeners; you’ll either find Xiu Xiu’s deliberate weirdness engaging, or you’ll wonder what the hell your reviewer saw in all of this. If you’re not a fan of the experimental, give the Joy Division cover a shot (“Ceremony,” for the record) – it’s true enough to the original so that you’ll have something to grab onto but contains enough of the overall Xiu Xiu sound to let you know where they are coming from. And, let’s face it, the vocalist does sound a lot like Robert Smith at times, which lends the proceedings a bit more of a gothic feel than I’m comfortable with and will strike some as (deliberately) theatrical. And sure, there are noisier, weirder, and possibly more gloomy bands in circulation. But hey, that’s just the evil prejudices of a webzine reviewer cropping up. Objectively, I’ll say this: there’s nothing out there at the moment that sounds like Xiu Xiu, they are not exploiting novelty for novelty’s sake, and they are never dull, which means they deserve your attention.