Xiu Xiu is so expert at straddling the line between avant-garde and indie rock that they've completely erased it. On Women as Lovers, there's less of a gap than ever between the band's ironically poppy (but genuinely) catchy songs and their experimental, unflinching ones. "I Do What I Want, When I Want" opens the album with chirpy synths and hints of a cheerful xylophone melody that are abandoned in what sounds like a sheet metal factory; hooky "doo-do-doo-do-doo" backing vocals are put through a distortion wringer. It's intense, it's uneasy -- but it's also strangely immediate in a way that only Xiu Xiu can manage. Over the rest of Women as Lovers, Jamie Stewart, Caralee McElroy, and crew cover the spectrum of their sounds, from "No Friend Oh!"'s outraged almost-pop to "Puff and Bunny"'s broken, self-loathing gamelan. The band's approach is so well defined now, so cleverly honed, that small changes make a big difference in their sound. Women as Lovers has a rough richness that sets it apart from La Foret's fractured electronics or The Air Force's spaciousness: percussion and voice are the album's main motifs, augmented by strings, super-saturated synths, and caustic guitar. "In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall" crashes in on big rock drums, then retreats into gentle, reverbed passages; "You Are Pregnant, You Are Dead" is muscular and downright brutal, with a steeply climbing melody pushed onward by more massive drums. In fact, much of Women as Lovers is as bleak as its namesake, Elfriede Jelinek's 1995 novel, but Xiu Xiu covers a wider scope, giving voices to many complex and anguished characters and situations. As always, the band rarely oversimplifies matters -- witness "White Nerd"'s mix of rage and sympathy. Women as Lovers gets increasingly bleak as it unfolds: on "Guantanamo Canto," Stewart sings, "My country needs this freedom/To contradict your humanness" as synths overtake the song like an invasion; "Black Keyboard," one of several songs about children, addresses child abuse in a way that's extremely unsettling even by Xiu Xiu's standards. Despite the album's grimness, Xiu Xiu leaves some room for hope with an inspired cover of "Under Pressure," with Michael Gira playing David Bowie to Stewart's Freddie Mercury. Their version is faithful enough to sing along to, and has that unmistakable bassline, but the atonal brass adds more tension and urgency. It's a call to arms, especially in the face of all of the pain outlined in the rest of the album. Xiu Xiu's unswerving intensity is admirable, but it can be a lot to take -- then again, they probably scared away the faint-hearted years ago. Nobody else sounds like Xiu Xiu, and they've made themselves even more singular on this album.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares
feat: Michael Gira