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September 20, 2010 | by  | in Music |
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Xiu Xiu, with support from Glass Vaults and Siamese

Xiu Xiu, with support from Glass Vaults and Siamese
Live at San Francisco Bathhouse, 11 Sept.

Xiu Xiu is one of the more polarising bands to have visited Wellington in the last couple of years. Given the relatively small size of the night’s crowd it struck me that most of us are firmly entrenched in the ‘no’ camp. This is perhaps understandable, as their emotional intensity, schizoid approach to songwriting, and confrontational lyrics all make for a pretty difficult package, even on record. Live, Jamie Stewart is howling lines like “Beat beat me to death, I said it / Beat beat me to death” into the faces of the crowd from a couple of metres away. Clearly this isn’t for everyone, but I was still surprised to find San Fran much less than half-full, especially given the band’s stature, the relative dearth of quality international acts to have visited (at least since the Galesburg ‘summer of plenty’), and the reasonable ticket price ($25). Even worse, some of those who did show up seemed to think that it was cool to talk, giggle and pop balloons during some of the band’s quieter songs. Even in my drunken state I can recall being most unimpressed, and Stewart didn’t look particularly enamoured with the reception his music was receiving either.

Given these trying circumstances, I feel I must give ample kudos to both him and new member Angela Seo for forging on, and treating those of us who held their music in higher regard to an impressive and varied set. Although they tended to favour the poppier moments of their discography, I wouldn’t shy from using adjectives like noisy, uncompromising or dissonant to describe the experience of seeing them live. Make no mistake, though Xiu Xiu employs the odd disco beat, they are by no means a dance band, regardless of what some of the more wasted members of the audience seemed to think. Even a recognisable crowd favourite like ‘I Love the Valley OH!’ saw its ostensive pop structure subverted by the band’s trademark dentist’s drill approach to percussion, as well as by blasts of noise from Seo’s synth and Stewart’s abusive treatment of a Nintendo DS.

Unsurprisingly, their set was weighted towards their more recent material, with both ‘Gray Death’ and the brilliant ‘Chocolate Makes You Happy’ (“Chocolate makes you happy / And it keeps you awake / As you unbutton your top button / Bewildered by the pain”) from their new album, Dear God, I Hate Myself, given faithful and effective renditions. As they wound their way through these songs Stewart’s energy and intensity saw him work up quite the sweat, while Seo navigated her arms through an intricate choreography of percussive motions with unwavering focus and intent. Together, they operated in juxtaposition, albeit one which collapsed when each successive song descended into the obligatory whiplash of its noise assault breakdown.

I departed the Bathhouse with mixed emotions and ringing ears. As engaging as Xiu Xiu had been, I couldn’t help but feel that the night would have been greatly enhanced by a larger and more appreciative audience, but perhaps that’s typical of their gigs, and apt given the kind of art that Stewart has chosen to produce. Should a Xiu Xiu show ever be euphoric, let alone fun? Probably not.

It was fitting that they didn’t bother to return for an encore.

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  1. MBS says:

    I’m sorry to have missed it, but I heard exactly the same experience retold from people whose opinion I hold in high regard.

    One of your better reviews Kim.

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