Xiu Xiu roots itself in death, loss and fear. Rather than adorn its debut record Knife Play with some blase critical accolade, the band stuck a quote referring to what singer Jamie Stuart found solace in at the time of his mother’s death — Joy Division, The Smiths, Black Sabbath — on top of the cellophane. This compelling promotional concept pays off upon the first listen of any one of the band’s records to date. The morbid fascination, ennui and general sinking feeling you may have gotten the first time you heard/dissected “She’s Lost Control” or “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” will come back to haunt you.
Fag Patroll is a sort of mini-introduction to Stuart and company, mostly compiling acoustic versions of the more notable tracks from the band’s previous records: Knife Play, Chapel of the Chimes and this year’s A Promise. Still, stripping these songs down does not allow for the accessibility that Xiu Xiu needs to find a real audience. In fact, the lack of static and pounding synths — some of the band’s trademarks, here replaced with sparse guitar and directions from the sound booth — is probably more alienating. But the acoustic versions do capture the sadness and sincerity that is at the core of Xiu Xiu’s music, perhaps making it all more believable.
Opener “Helsabot,” a new track, has Stuart’s feverishly pained vocals quivering awkwardly around his reluctant guitar plucks and strums, a technique he uses often on the record. “I did something bad/ I got into a fight/ I am Helsabot/ I am not/ What you wish you were,” he sings on “Helsabot.” You can hardly make this out as he pauses, almost unable to say the words. An accordion fights Stuart’s vocals on “King Earth, King Earth” and ultimately wins, as Stuart ends with “No one can touch you.” “20,000 Deaths for Eidelyn” has him choking on his words, getting desperate, frantic and giving way to fumbled whistling.
These compelling music/vocal duels continue until a perfect Smiths cover emerges, a slow acoustic lullaby of “Asleep.” Stuart sounds quite unconvinced as he repeats: “There is a better world/ Well, there must be.” This is followed by a stripped-down version of favorite “I Broke Up” from Knife Play, with Stuart pausing in this version to whisper under his breath, rather than wail out, “This is the worst vacation ever — I’m going to cut open your forehead with a roofing shingle.”
If it’s not clear yet, Xiu Xiu is not for all of us. It’s arty, fucked-up music, and unable to be classified in any genre at all — they may be creating a genre that I don’t have the audacity to name. Fag Patrol is the kind of record you may only listen to once but recommend a thousand times. The anger and pain conveyed never seems false and never gives up; for some, that may be exhausting, and sometimes even embarrassing. It is, nevertheless, the most compelling, original, haunting and intense music to emerge this year.