Xiu Xiu, “Esquerita, Little Richard” (Polyvinyl)
The ferociously prolific American band Xiu Xiu are back with their 13th album, and it's the first one I've ever really liked—though, sorry to admit, I've missed some. Sole constant member and multi-instrumentalist Jamie Stewart's voice has always epitomized the “acquired taste” syndrome, and I've never had the stomach for it, though I tried many times. Stewart always seemed to be cramming extra hard to earn a PhD in “transgression,” but he mostly came off as stilted.
Stewart's drama-queen machinations on the mic always have made me reach for the Dramamine. Operatic bluster remains my least favorite vocal style. He's more effective when straining to contain his seething angst with a grimace. Maybe that's why 2016's Plays the Music of Twin Peaks hit me more satisfyingly than Xiu Xiu's more overtly vocal-based work. On it, Xiu Xiu imbue Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch's soundtrack with much more tensile sonic muscularity; check out their fantastic version of “Pink Room,” which out-Sturm und Drangs just about everybody.
Now backed by fellow multi-instrumentalists Angela Seo and David Kendrick (Devo, Sparks, Gleaming Spires), Stewart has reached a late-career peak with Ignore Grief. The album possesses the dank, traumatized air of Scott Walker's own late-career zenith, Bish Bosch. Every second of Ignore Grief—even the rests—conveys dread. The prevalent style is an artfully sculpted orchestral-industrial-doom—think Nine Inch Nails scoring an apocalyptic sci-fi thriller (e.g., “The Real Chaos Cha Cha Cha”) or a Twilight Zone episode that got yanked from production because its score was too disturbing (e.g., “666 Photos of Nothing”).
The title of “Esquerita, Little Richard” spotlights two of early rock 'n' roll's most subversive and explosive artists. The music, however, sounds nothing like that of those Black, queer musicians. Rather, it draws on their aesthetic boldness to generate a nightmarish, brutal warehouse-techno, its rattling, metallic beats relentlessly pistoning at 140-plus BPM. Seo intones inspirational lyrics such as “Tear it up, strut your stuff/Be disappointed when you wake up ignore grief” while rolling on the Laibach-goes-to-hell noise floor. Crazy adrenaline rushes ensue.
Xiu Xiu perform May 3 at Vera Project with Spllitt and Medium Weekend.
Friends Below Zero, “Helicopter Skies” (Friends Below Zero)
The Helicopter Spies EP began germinating in the late '90s in Orange County, the handiwork of a KUCI DJ named Brian MacDonald (aka Friends Below Zero). MacDonald eventually moved to Seattle, where he became the city's least tech-bro-like tech bro and an elite mash-up DJ who worked mixological magic under the handle Lance Lockarm. Meanwhile those old tracks gathered digital dust on a hard drive.
A music über-nerd who'd amassed a killer record collection, MacDonald recently sold said collection and instead focused on his own dormant music during the pandemic-plagued years of 2021 and 2022. He added overdubs and edited, mixed, and mastered those vintage tracks to the perfectly flawed versions you hear on this crafty, scrappy three-tracker.
“Newport Breach” purveys noisy pop in the vein of cult indie-rock greats Lilys and Swirlies, with charmingly askew melody, crispy bass and guitar riffs, and frayed sax wails. “Units Plays Clicks” is a galloping, widescreen rocker with wistful horns, buzzing drones, and a valedictorian mood that somehow makes me think of Britpop shape-shifters Boo Radleys—if they were from America's West Coast.
Not to put too fine of a point on it, but MacDonald seems as if he were born to cover “The Helicopter Spies,” one of British post-punk geniuses Swell Maps' most anthemic tunes. Friends Below Zero bestows an apropos murk to this tsunami of fuzz and driving, lo-fi beats (by one Biff). You wish the song's composer, Nikki Sudden, were alive to hear such a glorious tribute.
The Helicopter Spies EP is available now digitally on Bandcamp and on 7” vinyl on May 5. A Friends Below Zero album will also be released on that date on vinyl and CD and cassette versions will be issued in mid May, as will downloads and appearance on streaming services. More info here.
This story has been updated since its original publication—it's Brian MacDonald who sings on "The Helicopter Spies," not Donna Brown.