I'd never known a show at the hi-dive to start before 9, particularly on a Saturday, so I was gravely dismayed when I walked in about five till and saw Merrill Garbus tUnInG up on stage, meaning that I'd completely missed Talk Normal, the band I was most excited to see. Sorry, ladies! I was really really really looking forward to your set!
Between all of the press she's been getting (signing to 4AD certainly hasn't hurt) and the fact that Saturday marked her third appearance in Denver in five months, it wasn't surprising to see a big crowd on hand to see Merrill Garbus (who performs as tUnE-yArDs) -- despite the fact that her music shares little with that of headliners Xiu Xiu beyond a big helping of deeply personal idiosyncrasy.
Her music, a sort of vaguely tribalistic indie pop driven by ukulele and her African-ish (think Lion King) bleat, isn't really my cup of tea, but resourceful one-person acts are fun to watch; there's a simple pleasure in watching her use a loop pedal to build simple beats and layers of vocals, creating fully arranged songs mostly by herself (with the aid of an unobtrusive bassist) without seeming to break a sweat.
Whether from fatigue or the sense that the crowd was already on her side, Garbus's showmanship was down a bit from when I first saw her last fall, but she still engaged the crowd.
For a band built on such naked pain, Xiu Xiu is surprisingly workmanlike; for nearly a decade now, Jamie Stewart and company have reliably turned out a new album and toured like crazy behind it every eighteen months or so.
Honestly, I kind of expected myself to tire of Xiu Xiu a long time ago; how many albums of Stewart's clanging histrionics could I really need? And yet I've continued to find myself faithfully going to the record store and picking up each new album, hoping for at least another two or three gems on the level of "Apistat Commander" or "I Luv the Valley OH!"-- and I'm just as faithfully rewarded.
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His albums tend to be uneven, but when he's on, Stewart can marshal all of his gongs, synths, whistles, tinny drum machines and blasts of white noise -- not to mention that spine-tingling voice -- into some of the finest art-pop ever made.
The new album, Dear God, I Hate Myself (guess we can't accuse Stewart of not having a sense of humor about himself), probably Xiu Xiu's most accessible yet, marks the departure of longtime bandmember Caralee McElroy, whose harmonium, melodica and cooing backing vocals have been replaced by the more synth-oriented contributions of Angela Seo.
Seo was Stewart's only companion Saturday night (longtime live drummer Ches Smith was also absent), leaving the band more reliant upon samples and backing tracks than usual in live appearances. Even so, the duo still made plenty of noise. In fact, Stewart and Seo almost completely eschewed any softer moments (which the proximity of the bar to the stage at the hi-dive has tended to ruin in the past anyway) in favor of more powerful songs, which are usually Stewart's best.
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So we heard excellent new songs ("Gray Death," "Dear God, I Hate Myself" and "This Too Shall Pass Away"), along with classics like "Muppet Face" (with "smells like Fallujah" changed to "smells like Kandahar," scansion be damned) and "Boy Soprano."
Thankfully, the chiptunes elements that occasionally mar the new album were mostly swallowed up by the general cacophony, but it was still weird to watch the two play their Nintendo DS, the tiny handheld device that made them look like they were checking their e-mail amidst the maelstrom. It was much more fun to watch the pair bang on all their auxiliary percussion, which they too seldom had the time to do.
But while the limited personnel kept the band from being quite the dramatic presence on stage that it's been in the past, the show was still more than good enough to remind me why, just as I keep buying every new album, I keep seeing Xiu Xiu every chance I get: The band's mix of harrowing noise and sweet pop, of bracing hysteria and precise musicianship, remains singular and vital, and shows no sign of ceasing to be so any time soon.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I keep wishing for an album that's an unqualified classic (Fabulous Muscles and The Air Force come pretty close), but even absent one, Xiu Xiu is one of my favorite bands of all time. Random Detail: There's no reason Jamie Stewart should be able to pull off a Mohawk, but somehow he does. By the Way: Fans of anything noisy or dark really should check out New York duo Talk Normal, whose recent full-length debut, Sugarland, explores a piece of post-punk history that has somehow failed to get completely scavenged: The dank remains of no wave, the early '80s Lower East Side black hole from which only Swans and Sonic Youth escaped. Jamie Stewart called it one of the best records he's heard in ten years on Saturday night; I'm not sure if I'd go that far, but it's really, really good. I'm thoroughly pissed that I missed the band's set.