The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

The Lead Review

Ugly Songs For Ugly Times: Xiu Xiu's Girl With Basket Of Fruit
Luke Turner , February 21st, 2019 10:02

Xiu Xiu return on the wonderful Upset The Rhythm label with another album of dissonant, angry songs about the current state of global awfulness

Prolific and uncategorisable, Xiu Xiu are a group who zip around the fringes of my awareness, always there, always interesting, before every now and then hitting home with a record that doesn't merely demand attention, but sticks its fingers into your face and rips eyes and ears open - a nightmare, a catharsis, a despicable vision.

I have been sent thousands of emails from PRs and record labels in the past couple of years telling me that the music they're flogging is "empowering". It's a word that, as Sirin Kale wrote here is utterly devalued when it comes with nothing concrete behind it. Similarly, much of the music touted as political, or empowering, or whatever buzzword is doing the rounds at any given time is utterly banal, written to tempt Spotify's algorithms or potential syncs with trainer brands. I do not hear much rage, or music that sounds like disgust.

Xiu Xiu on the other hand shit on such complacency. Girl With Basket Of Fruit is a deeply immersive and courageous record that vibrates with rage. It is an uncomfortable, queasy, difficult listen, but with that is one of the most thrilling records I've heard in quite some time. The album comes not with a standard press release telling us what Jamie Stewart has done over his years of operation, the Twin Peaks interpretations record etc, but a list of suggestions about what Girl With Basket Of Fruit "could be". It's a clever way to deliver insights into the recording process, and "It could be a short novel called The Rhythm Section Talked about Drugs, The Horn Players Talked about Ass & The Strings Talked about Money" is certainly preferable to the average artist and their usual "there were tensions in the studio yes but in the day we wrote the songs that we needed to for ourselves and if anyone else likes it well then that's a bonus".

Such mundanities are not known in Xiu Xiu's world. The opening, title track, sets the the pace from the off. It's an angry, clattering slab of industrial garage, bells clanging, the lyrics imbued with sex and disgust, Jamie Stewart coming across, oddly enough, like Nick Cave reimagined as a Grindrman, butt-cheeks spread and ready. An intense appreciation of the poetic possibilities offered up by the nooks and crannies of the self has long been at the heart of what Xiu Xiu do (long-term readers might recall Stewart discussing arse cleaning on the road in this Quietus feature), something that i think will always be the case when, as a queer person, your body is often defined (by others) from your sexuality.

A sense of queer rage has always been at the heart of what Xiu Xiu are about. It's why for all their noise this is never music that comes across as macho. It has at its heart an intensity that isn't dominant and invasive, but vulnerability and empathy. So even when 'It Comes Out As A Joke' echoes the hollow-cheeked and brittle one-two punch Einstürzende Neubauten's 'Sado Masodub', it's raising of arms in protest dance. Indeed, it's one of many moments on the album where one feels a similarly staunch atmosphere to that created by Algiers.

Elsewhere, the sheer weirdness of Girl With Basket Of Fruit provides the thrills. Take 'Amargi ve Moo', for instance, where a string part saws away at sputtering vocalisations interspersed with horrorshow lyrics - "Chunks of your scalp now in a dumpster or in a sandwich" - delivered by Stewart in a breathy voice that's like Scott Walker being taken to a vaudeville theatre in a straitjacket. 'Ice Cream Truck' rattles like the fridge gone wrong, the wrong kind of cream squirted into your child's 99 cone.

This discord continues throughout. At other moments, there's a style-crunching aspect to the songwriting that means this sits far more closely to acts who are the 'sick' booking du jour at electronic music festivals across Europe than the indie rock world with which Xiu Xiu are still bizarrely associated. There's a kinship with Yves Tumor, for instance, and 'Pumpkin Attack On Mommy And Daddy' bolsters an industrial menace with hints of footwork. Frequently this is a highly politicised fury. 'Mary Turner Mary Turner' is a heaving, thunderous telling of the racist lynching of a pregnant African American woman in 1918. It touches, I think, on the current series we're running on these pages about how art and music deals with difficult histories. Unlike the 'ooo look at me' paper men of power electronics and industrial noise, there's nothing fetishistic, voyeuristic, or pathetically ambiguous here, more an outpouring of disgust that we seem to be in similarly horrendous times again.

There are moments of beauty here too, of course, for that contrast has always been a hallmark of Jamie Stewart's songwriting, and what makes Xiu Xiu bleed where others merely pose. Take his querulous vocals over a funeral drum on 'The Wrong Thing', for instance, a torch song for impossible times.

Usually I'd say shoot the writer who merely lifts from the press release when writing the conclusion of their review, but for me I will make an exception as I copy paste from Xiu Xiu's list: "It could be that despite the confusion of this life, people who can still truthfully call themselves human try to push through 2019's collecting horror". Let us be thankful that in this dark age Xiu Xiu are still trying.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.