Release Date: Feb 4, 2014
Record label: Polyvinyl
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Club/Dance, Experimental Rock, Post-Punk
Bella Union enthusiastically laud the impulse driving Jamie Stewart’s ninth Xiu Xiu studio album Angel Guts: Red Classroom. It’s an impulse they reckon is shared between Stewart, Blixa Bargeld, Suicide and Scott Walker. It’s nothing new; pop records as recent as Kanye West‘s Yeezus have had Suicide comparisons bestowed upon them by people hoping to capture an enlightened audience by appealing to a certain aesthetic.
In the amorphous landscape of alternative music, Xiu Xiu stand out as one of the best examples of why thinking through subversion is still a good idea. Okay, it's complicated to even identify what 'subversive' even means in 2014, but for more than a decade Xiu Xiu have persistently succeeded in making us feel uncomfortable. Porn, S&M, queer politics, blood, self-pity and an overall celebration of outsiderness are only a few of the many sources of inspiration incorporated in Jamie Stewart's experimental, dissonant, squeaky body of work.
Album number nine for the prolific Jamie Stewart is billed as his creepiest yet—and you can see why. Riddled with gnarling hacksaw percussion, this is Xiu Xiu returning to its angst-spewing, ear-bleeding, bone-rattling, yet always melodic roots. As intense and as self-questioning as ever, Angel Guts: Red Classroom is the sound of an artist getting back to his best.
It takes a certain bravery to enter the world constructed by Xiu Xiu on their ninth studio album. Angel Guts: Red Classroom is from the outset an uncompromising record that opens with a short drone passage and from that point on presents the listener with a record that descends into increasingly grubby and murky subject matter. It is shocking, it's exciting and it doesn't attempt to give any easy answers or clues as to its real intentions.
“Angel Guts”, the near title-track of Xiu Xiu’s latest album Angel Guts: Red Classroom, begins with the subdued field recording of what to the mind’s eye seems to be wind blowing across a deserted moor. Slightly less intriguing than it is tranquil, the opener lulls the listener into a false slumber. It also positions you straight into the setting yourself, at that very moment feeling as alone and singular as its creator, who – nine albums in by now – is long renowned for being.
Angel Guts: Red Classroom arrived just a few months after Nina, a collection of Nina Simone covers that already hinted that Xiu Xiu were headed in a more experimental direction than much of their work from the mid-2000s onward. Relatively speaking, of course -- even the band's catchiest albums, like Always, have had more than a little art damage. At the time of its release, Angel Guts was touted as Xiu Xiu's darkest album to date, though it might be more accurate to call it one of the band's most obviously dark works.
There’s a popular myth that art is how mankind overhauls the world and its own facticity. At least centuries old, this quaint doctrine began assuming its present form with the Age of Enlightenment, when the establishment realized that they could more efficiently propagate the era’s burgeoning form of Rationality by siphoning it into the arts. Music, painting, and literature were to be reformative and edifying, or rather, they were to be used by the nascent middle and capitalistic classes to differentiate themselves from the skid-marked riffraff they wanted to leave in the mud.
This is hardly the place for armchair psychoanalysis, but it’s tempting to ponder quite what makes Xiu Xiu’s founding member Jamie Stewart tick. Specifically, if the suicidal impulses he’s frequently discussed in public serve to fuel his startling creativity. ‘Angel Guts: Red Classroom’ is his third album in under a year, and superficially it resembles many of Xiu Xiu’s others by draping wracked and fragile vocals over obtuse electronics and analogue atonality.
Almost 10 years ago to the day, Jamie Stewart released his most purposefully disturbing record as Xiu Xiu: not Knife Play, not Fag Patrol, and not Dear God, I Hate Myself. That would be Fabulous Muscles, which placed Stewart's NC-17 lyrical deviance within the context of streamlined, not-quite pop songs and, as a result, gave us something more unsettling than his cover art—a Xiu Xiu record presumably meant for mass consumption. It’s remained his most accessible work and not coincidentally, his strongest.
For twelve years now Jamie Stewart, as well as his frequently changing band of cohorts, have plugged away at the lo-fi coalface, releasing record after record of intriguing, tricky, dark and very rough around the edges experimental synthpop. While admirable, and rightfully earning them a cult audience, this work, in truth, can be something of a draining experience to listen to given how much of it sounds a lot like Suicide’s Frankie Teardop, a song whose tremulous theatrics were exhausting over ten minutes, let alone more than a decade’s worth of albums. Perhaps Stewart’s now feeling that way too, what with him recently expressing doubts about the future of Xiu Xiu.
Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu says ‘Angel Guts: Red Classroom’ was informed by both Japanese pornography - well, if you’re going to make a record informed by any sort of pornography it may as well be Japanese pornography - and his move to a “crime ridden area of LA”.What isn’t exactly clear is why Stewart decided to up sticks from North Carolina into a “neighbourhood with a notoriously dangerous reputation”. Was he sold a pup by a slick estate agent? Did the nearby residents find out about his crippling Japanese Pornography habit? Or was it for the benefit of his art?By reputation, Stewart isn’t the sort to take the easy way out, so the latter seems quite possible. Until you listen to ‘Angel Guts: Red Classroom’.
After a decade of putting more and more weight on the firmer terra of pop, Jamie Stewart has finally taken his Xiu Xiu project to its logical threshold: a song called “Black Dick. ” Appropriately, “Black Dick” begins with a chintzy Casio-tinged beat, but swiftly rots into an industrial scree that must be—what?—a comment on sexual identity via race, or a surreal parody of pornographic archetypes? Chances are it's intended to be a little bit of both, wiped down the back of the listener's psyche like an especially messy example of cubism capturing all facets at once of a cultural monolith no one else wants to touch with a 10-foot pole. It almost doesn't even matter, because by the time Stewart's repeating the word “dick” in his now-patented melodramatic, hushed falsetto, and a bracken of analog synths screams and pulses around him like the root system of veins on said object, the word practically loses all meaning and context.
Xiu Xiu take a path many other bands have taken with Angel Guts, Red Classroom. By using only the most primitive instruments, the classic “strip the sound down to reveal the core” motif is on full display here. It would be a better choice for just about any other band. With Xiu Xiu, their music is stripped down to the core by definition.
After moving blindly to a poor area of Los Angeles, Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart learned that low-income neighborhoods where rents run cheap often espouse violence. Though crime data is available more publicly than ever and a single Google search could have warned Stewart of the potential dangers that accompany certain parts of the city, the art pop songwriter ended up returning to California from North Carolina without an inkling of what he was in for. And while gang activity and violent crime might be hitting record lows in gentrifying metropolises across America, Stewart still wasn’t deprived of the opportunity to make an album about the horrors of the inner city — specifically, about how getting robbed is bad and about how some people aren’t white.
Jamie Stewart is standing in your hallway with a knife in his neck, cutting his own head off. I know what you were thinking when you opened that front door: "Oh, that nice Xiu Xiu man's here with his new record!" So you let him in, didn't you? Popped the kettle on and hoped for a chat. And now the detached head of Jamie Stewart is lolling about on your new carpet, and you have no idea how to respond.
In his most famous piece, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, American artist Mike Kelley stitched dozens of old, scavenged stuffed animals and dolls to an immense canvas. The piece looks like Kandinsky unhinged his jaw, swallowed the entire FAO Schwarz on 5th Avenue, and spewed his guts onto the wall in the shame of what he’d done. The title gets at Kelley’s idea for the work: the hours of labor that went into making each of these toys can never really be repaid to their creators, no matter how much Little Johnny loves his stuffed monkey or albino walrus.