Xiu Xiu, Oulipo
May 1, 2012
At this point, Xiu Xiu’s knack for darkly twisted cover songs is semi-legendary. The electro-flavored avant-pop outfit makes a habit of subverting well-known tunes to fit the bleak and frenzied aesthetic that leader Jamie Stewart has refined during a decade under the moniker. This summer, Stewart will depart from Durham, his home for the past four years, after a fraught and frustrating stint in the area. But on Tuesday night at Raleigh’s Kings Barcade, he gave the Triangle one last parting gift: a cover for the ages.
After an exhausting and exhilarating hour-long set that saw a duo version of Xiu Xiu wrangle cacophonous blasts of distorted noise into a rush of unstoppable angst, the band returned for an encore. Stewart cast off his guitar and grabbed the mic as a simplistic and grimy beat blasted from the drum machine. The song was “Frankie Teardrop,” the 10-minute murder epic from synth-punk pioneers Suicide. In every way, Xiu Xiu’s cover lived up to the original. The beat was more insistent, set into hyperdrive by dance-inspired syncopation and shot through by grungy distortion. As Angela Seo held down the keys, Stewart ranted through the harrowing narrative. Becoming more and more unhinged as the song wore on, he mimicked strangulation with his microphone cord and spun about with crazed intensity. It was brutal, challenging and ultimately transcendent, an appropriately powerful punctuation to the band’s unflinching performance.
During the main portion of the set, Xiu Xiu’s tactics were different, but the results were every bit as intense. Playing cuts from the new album Always as well as a large selection of older songs, the band stripped back the complexity of Stewart’s recorded material and focused on making each individual element as striking and intense as they possibly could. The dominant force was Stewart’s guitar, which he channeled through a wealth of pedals to create sheets of wrenching fuzz. Prickly dance jam “Hi” became a hyper-rhythmic assault, its breakneck dance beat bolstered by searing riffs. The creepy pop of “Smear the Queen” was transformed into smoldering noise rock replete with concussive body blows meant to accentuate its portrayal of homophobic violence.
Though the approach was noisy and overwhelming, Xiu Xiu never overpowered the fractured characters at the heart of Stewart’s songs. His wavering, high-pitched croon pierced perfectly through the scuzz, projecting with a faintness that forced the audience to pay closer attention to his words. When the songs reached their most intense moments, he would yelp or scream, concentrating his emotion, so that every boiling point left a scalding impression.
During Stewart’s time in the Triangle, Xiu Xiu’s local performances have been infrequent, and his relationship with Durham has never been the best. But Tuesday was a reminder that Stewart is a singular performer, one capable of bold and abrasive expressions that still manage to entertain. Regardless of the contention surrounding Stewart’s stay in North Carolina, it will be a shame to lose such a unique talent.