Xiu Xiu
w/ the Sweet Science, the Intima, Hypatia Lake

The Paradox, 524-7677, Jan 26, $7.

Xiu Xiu's singer/guitarist Jamie Stewart laughs at my joke about Trent Reznor, and I'm surprised. Not that someone would laugh at Trent Reznor, but that Stewart is laughing at all. Plus, my joke isn't that funny.

Stewart has been explaining that he couldn't imagine getting up onstage and doing music as wrought and emotionally embellished as Xiu Xiu's without owning every lyric. "When something that emotional is forced or pressed... if it felt like we were trying... it would just feel gross," he tells me. "Like Trent Reznor?" I suggest, and he busts out laughing.

The music Stewart makes with Xiu Xiu makes me laugh as well, because the band is usually obscenely morose and over-the-top. Still, I like Xiu Xiu a lot, for the sublime, brilliant moments it manages to create.

Like on this one song from Xiu Xiu's album Knife Play, called "Luber," on which Stewart (wisely mixed into the background of a clanking, synthesized swell of gothic art-pop) screams: "Luber, on your birthday/I will answer your 1,000 questions." Luber is this deeply troubled other for whom the narrator is feeling empathy, and the melody that Stewart manages to snag on the chorus strikes this harmonious chord with the song's narrative that just about makes me cry each time I hear it.

This San Jose four-piece uses, among other instrumentation and loads of great production, synths, guitar, piano, harmonium, gongs, bass, and mandolin. Xiu Xiu makes a very '80s sound. Imagine taking Erasure's Andy Bell, feeding him LSD and alcohol, beating him to a pulp, forcing him to read David Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, and then putting him on the microphone to front Joy Division, co-produced by Dave Allen and Martin Gore. This is a band that makes the Saddle Creek roster seem subtle.

The good news is, Xiu Xiu has found a fine home on 5RC, Kill Rock Stars' new sister label that Slim Moon recently founded. "I can't really think of a better label for us to be on, based on what [the label's] philosophy is," Stewart tells me. "Slim is intentionally looking for bands that don't really fit in, I guess. The ethos of the label is really about fostering that kind of thing, which just makes us feel very comfortable and at home there."

Props to Mr. Moon for not only taking chances on challenging music, but also for recognizing the beauty inherent in Xiu Xiu. I imagine most people I know will laugh at the band. In fact, everyone for whom I've played the CD thus far has grimaced and barked about how pretentious and melodramatic the band is. People assume that Xiu Xiu's wrought, fevered expression--a histrionic chorus of "A-I-D-S-H-I-V/I can-not wait to die/Can you tell?" for example; or a tragic line like, "I hate my body, I hate the desert..." and then later, "I'm going to hang myself"--is self-indulgent, contrived, simply too much, or all of the above.

Fair enough. I ask Stewart why he's so drawn to the morose. "Ninety-five percent of the songs that we write are either totally biographical or autobiographical," he tells me. "A lot of bad things have happened to me, and to my family," he says. "An unusual number of bad things. Depression as a psychosis runs in my family. Growing up, [depression] has been kind of a staple emotion, I guess. I just feel that way a whole lot, based on what my biochemistry is."

Stewart's father is Michael Stewart, a two-time Grammy-nominated producer responsible for over 20 albums, including Billy Joel's Piano Man. "He's always said to go too far," the young Stewart says. "That when you don't know what to do, you should take it far enough that you feel a little uncomfortable with it. He's just sort of drummed that into my head: 'Whatever you do, just don't play it safe.'"

I doubt that's a problem. I imagine Stewart being ridiculed by thugs, or stalked by obsessive fans who believe he's speaking directly to them. One thing I don't worry about, however, is that this insane and at times brilliant 29-year-old musician is ever in any jeopardy of playing things too safe.