Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Aural Sandpaper #2

Xiu Xiu - “Nieces Pieces (Boat Knife Version)”

Where the previous installment of Aural Sandpaper looked at a song that went for abrasion through volume, this one’s song does it very quietly, and even more effectively. “Nieces Pieces,” by the San Francisco band Xiu Xiu, explores a dark, ugly side of humanity while never rising above a whisper. Through atmospherics and some profoundly disturbing lyrics, Xiu Xiu creates a bleak, unshakable portrait of family dysfunction.

No matter how hard I try to come up with a more intellectual description of Xiu Xiu’s music, I keep coming back to “fucked up.” There is no better way to describe it. While there have been countless musicians who are personally fucked up, few are as willing to display it as Xiu Xiu’s leader Jamie Stewart. Where most songwriters try to poeticize their pain, Stewart shows his scars for all to see, putting things as bluntly as possible and pathologically reaching into the darkest depths of his battered psyche, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the listener. Listening to Xiu Xiu is like eavesdropping on an unusually intense therapy session.

No song in Xiu Xiu’s discography full of anguish is as painful as “Nieces Pieces (Boat Knife Version)” (I don’t know what “Boat Knife Version” means. As far as I know, this is the only released version). Stewart addresses the song to his newborn niece. For most uncles, a new niece would be a joyous event, but Stewart has seen too much to be happy. He knows that life will not be kind to this poor little girl, because she has the misfortune of being related to him and has family. “I can’t wait to watch you grow up,” Stewart sighs, “I can’t wait to meet the first boy who breaks your life.” In these lines, the first of the song, he foretells the girl’s difficult future, and how it will only get worse from there. He then tells her about some of her family history, how her uncle and mother’s childhoods were marred by physical and sexual abuse. The descriptions of abuse set up the song’s final, impossibly devastating lyric, “I can’t wait until you realize that Mommy’s heart is broken/ I can’t wait to watch you grow up around the people who broke it.” Stewart is both a witness and a contributor to one of the most depressing things there is: a life doomed before it has even really begun. His niece is fated to “turn from good to bad.” She will grow up to be just like the rest of her family, broken.

The lyrics are upsetting on their own, but when taken with the music, it becomes almost too much to bear. The song is based around a mournful, discordant two- note horn part. There are only a few other elements: a drone provided by a hard-to-identify instrument, perhaps an accordion, a disingenuously pretty guitar part that comes late into the song, and Stewart’s quavering voice. The lack of percussion creates a disorienting rhythmic effect. In fact, there is hardly any rhythm to the song, leaving it quiet and free-flowing. The sparseness and fragility of the arrangement juxtaposes with the ugliness of the lyrics while simultaneously complementing them perfectly. The atonality and lack of rhythm are just as difficult to digest. Stewart’s singing is the focal point, however, and he carries the song with his performance. He is not a traditionally good singer, but he often still tries to sing operatically, which makes him sound like a confrontational drama queen. The opera is not present here, exactly, but he still sounds like a confrontational drama queen, albeit a defeated one. He murmurs the words in an airy, tremulous tone, sounding on the verge of an emotional collapse. Stewart seems to be searching for catharsis, but unable to find it. The rhythm and melody follow his own weird, internal guideline. It all adds up to an unsettling whole.

“Nieces Pieces” is a hard song to listen to, and Xiu Xiu’s detractors accuse them of being irredeemably ugly and exploitative. I don’t think this is true; Xiu Xiu’s music works in the same way that a director like Todd Solondz or Gaspar Noe’s films do: the art is in the depiction of the ugliness. It is a rare unfiltered look at darkness, and maybe it can help us to better understand the basest depths of humanity.

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