Pop goes wild on CDs by queer-centric bands Magnetic Fields and Xiu Xiu
The strongest talent of Jamie Stewart, the queer frontman for the group Xiu Xiu, is unifying his way-out-there compositions and lyrics into fringe pop. The band’s 2010 disc Dear God, I Hate Myself was an exercise in strange sophistication, but Xiu Xiu outdoes itself, hitting back hard with eccentricities that flay the listener, on the new CD Always, which delivers even more “what the fuck am I listening to” moments.
Always kicks off on the accessible “Hi,” also its first single. The heaviness in its blunt drumbeats is a Xiu Xiu signature, as is Stewart’s breathy voice, which sounds like he’s always gasping for air. Even though he sings about a crocodile and a hippopotamus, “Hi” manages to be an exciting opener that displays the band’s quirkiness at its best.
Second single “Beauty Towne” is a polished beauty of electric beats. Released as a postscript to the band’s “Clowne Towne” from 2004’s Fabulous Muscles, the song is laden with sound, but its melody is inviting.
It’s when Stewart shifts into total provocateur mode that he and the band become an acquired taste. “I Luv Abortion” is Stewart at his most unhinged, but the song is a hot mess. His rampant yelling over a disarray of noise may address a political issue, but it’s so offensive in its makeup that it forced me to click fast to the next song.
Objectified Chinese migrant workers were the inspiration for “Factory Girls,” a sleepy track that wants to say something more, but the vocals get muddled. The two-minute-plus track disappears in its lack of vision and all we remember is the emphasized line no need to fuck yourself in the ass, and the intended but missed poignancy of the final line Thank you for making this purse.
Despite efforts at topicality, Always works everywhere else. There is no denying Xiu Xiu’s conviction to its brand of quirky sound. Just don’t mistake quirk for cute. Xiu Xiu has a mysterious darkness about them that’s masked in fascinating musical innovation.
Thirteen years have passed since The Magnetic Fields last album — a three-CD collection called 69 Love Songs, which also became the band’s defining CD and showcased the writing brilliance of its gay leader, Stephin Merritt. While the just-released Love at the Bottom of the Sea may not achieve similar iconic status, the new album is pure delight.
Perfume Genius’ latest was in the early running for gayest album of the year, but The Magnetic Fields is already ahead. Merritt writes straightforward lyrics without gay sensibilities ever becoming gimmicky. His unrequited love song “Andrew in Drag,” about a straight man facing some of love’s complications, has a tender honesty. When Merritt’s deep voice chimes out I’ve always been a ladies’ man/and I don’t have to brag/But I’ve become a mama’s boy for Andrew in drag, the romance behind that is sweeping without the tune ever forcing it.
The band turns on its own eccentricities with fun flair in tracks like “Your Girlfriend’s Face” about a somewhat jealous lover’s attempts to get revenge (Cause I’ve hired the fixer for her too/For stealing my lover and making me blue) and “Infatuation (With Your Gyration),” an ode to a dance floor crush.
Merritt isn’t selfish with the vocal duties, allowing bandmates Shirley Simms and Randy Walker some time on the microphone, but he smartly saves some of the sweeter tracks for himself except for the adorable “I’d Go Anywhere with Hugh,” which goes to Walker.
While the band has gloriously added major synth elements on this venture, some of Love still plays with a lo-fi feel. They refrain from over- thinking their music but turn love notes into gushy, but addictive tunes.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 2, 2012.