Monday, September 21, 2009

#101. 'I won't rest 'cuz I've heard it all before'

Xiu Xiu "I Luv the Valley, OH!"

When a band's introduction to me is by a song like Xiu Xiu's "I Broke Up (SJ)" it never seems likely that they'll be able to top it. If you haven't heard "I Broke Up" yet I urge you to do so right now, as it's easily one of the best songs the decade brought forth, a jagged slice of ultra-paranoid post-punk from the fringes of the genre that manages to be both melodic, visceral and catchy all at once. The problem with that being my introduction to Jamie Stewart's ouevre was that everything thereafter carried a hint of disappointment. Knife Play struggled to match "I Broke Up"'s singular greatness ("Poe Poe" came close) and the follow up EP Chapel of the Chimes may have contained another moment to rival it in "Jennifer Lopez (The Sweet Science Version)" - although that one was subsequently improved by the take on Fag Patrol - but it was also a weak release on the whole. 2003's A Promise was a stronger album, but a lot of the better moments seemed to be willfully destroyed with shards of noise. Ignoring the opening one-two of "Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl" and "Apistat Commander," two fully realized and jaw-droppingly great songs, A Promise sounded like a work of self-destruction where Stewart laid out a good song and set about the task of doing whatever he could to destroy it. It was almost as though he didn't want anyone to see that he could lay out a series of great songs, contenting himself with a couple of awesome numbers then making sure the rest were rendered all but unlistenable.

Then along came Fabulous Muscles where the willfull destruction that plagued A Promise was reduced to one bad song among 9 great ones. I'll talk about the album as a whole a lot more when I get to my top 100-or-so albums discussion (starts tomorrow!) but in brief it was proof that underneath all the oddly unsatisfying work that clogged up the past 3 releases there was one of the decades most unique and remarkable songwriting talents at work. Honestly, the stripped down incarnations of several songs from A Promise from the Fag Patrol EP tipped me off to that fact a few months before the release of Fabulous Muscles, but to see Stewart putting out a full set of good-to-great songs that weren't encumbered by unnecessarily disfiguring production was just the sort of confirmation I was looking for.

Think about it this way: on any other Xiu Xiu album "I Luv the Valley, OH!" would be the highlight, the album's "I Broke Up" that all the other songs couldn't come close to matching no matter how hard they tried. Despite the fact that it's album-mates are closer to its level than you might have expected it does stand as the definite album highlight and an obvious single choice if Xiu Xiu were the type of band who made some attempt at commercial success. It got a 7" release regardless, wouldn't be here otherwise, but I mean to say that if the band were making some sort of overtures to alternative radio this would probably be their only shot. It's the most straightforward song that Stewart's written in my estimation, and outside of one pained yowl toward the end it's his most reined-in vocal performance. If this were any other band I'd say it was a blatant attempt at a breakout single, but with Xiu Xiu it comes off as just a damn good song that happens to be pretty much ready for the airwaves.

It's also one of the best songs about suicide or suicidal thoughts that I've had the pleasure of hearing. I generally don't have much good to say about suicide songs on either side of the equation; generally they go too maudlin for my tastes and even the ones that don't fail to offer much outside of cliches, and that's on either side of the equation. "I Luv the Valley" is a bit more unique in that it's neither a dramatic 'goodbye cruel world' or a peppy 'don't try suicide!,' instead adopting the stance that's best summed up in the pull-quote here : 'I won't rest 'cuz I've heard it all before.' It's coming from someone who has probably had his moments of contemplating the pills or the razor he explicitly references here, but is moving beyond that now. It may not be the embrace of misery and depression that I've seen it referenced as (in a very well written piece at the late, great Stylus Magazine) but more of an acceptance of how hard life can get and how if you don't enjoy the lows (the valley of the title) you can't appreciate a lot of other things. It's not dealt with directly, little ever is in Stewart-land, but the tone of the song is positive enough - relativistically speaking at least - that I've come to see it as an embrace of bad times because there's nothing else productive you can do with them.

Having Stewart go through all that over what could easily be called a jaunty chord progression might seem a bit counter-intuitive at first, but the riffs his band-mates put down are a great example of subtle interplay. Between the trebly, skittering chords that introduce the song, the spare, echoing lead guitar line and the incessant thrum of the bass you've got a simple yet endlessly fascinating pallette to work from, but the key is the drums. They don't come in all that often, but when they do it's a booming thunderclap that doesn't last long but acts as a shock to the track every time it enters. The thing of it is that even without the drums there's a very percussive feel to the track, probably owing to the bass line more than anything, that would make any sort of constant drum presence seem like a bit of overkill. The short interjections of HUGE drum hits are the sort of 'colour' elements that can take a good song and make it that much better, the right sort of accoutrement to a fairly complete track that gives it something it's missing but not so much that it crowds out the core of the track.

On top of all that there's Stewart's vocals. I said before that they were relatively reined-in here as compared to other Xiu Xiu songs, but that's ignoring the one moment everyone, even those among you who hate the song, are likely to remember. You know the moment I'm talking about, the absolutely gut-wrenching shriek on the OH! of the title. It's odd that Stewart would save his most unhinged vocal moment for the song where he reined it in the most otherwise, but it's logical given it's place in the song. Even if Stewart's voices was reined in there was stillan edge to it throughout the song. Combine that with the subject matter and the music and you've got a lot of tension brewing. The OH! doesn't break the tension, it absolutely shatters it. It's cathartic in a way that few vocalists could manage anywhere near this effectively not just because I can't think of any others who could lay down such a visceral scream but because it's the screams placement that winds up being more important to the song than its tone. It's another notch in Stewart's favor as a songwriter that he knew exactly were to place the scream for maximum effect; close enough to the end that there's time for the tension to build but not so close to the end that it goes too long. The fact that you've got the riffs twisting into a near-jubilliant fanfare not long afterwards is just the icing on the cake.

Coming up tomorrow: Long distance relationships are saaaaad.

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