Angel Guts: Red Classroom
Polyvinyl Records, 2014
Review by Kent Manthie
The heartbeat of Los Angeles: Xiu Xiu are back with their latest full-length CD, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, a veritable delight of depravity and darkness.
Since 2002 Jamie Stewart, the brainchild and currently the only consistent member since the beginning, has been writing the songs and doing his best to make his music be more than just a cash cow, the way he’d envisioned being a “rock star” would be since he was a kid, playing air guitar to Abbey Road over and over again. It was some advice from his musician/record producer father, Michael Stewart, who, sadly, killed himself in 2002, but not before telling his son, who’d intimated to his dad that he wanted to be in a band in order to get “famous and make lots of money”. Aghast at hearing such a shallow reason for wanting to make music and be in a band, dad told son that making music must be more than a mere commercial venture; it must have a quality within that touches the listener, your output should be something that says something about you, that connects you with your audience. Vapid pop music comes and goes but it’s the artist who puts him or her self into the process. Jamie took that advice and Xiu Xiu is all the better for it.
Starting from San Jose, CA, Xiu Xiu is the result of Jamie’s desire to start a band and after several attempts that didn’t go far or from which he was extricated. A couple examples being Ten in the Swear Jar and The Indestructible Beat of Palo Alto, which was a nod to the groovy South African group, Indestructible Beat of Soweto. Finally in 2002, Stewart got together with Cory McCullough, Lauren Andrews and Yvonne Chen. Their first LP was Knife Play which was followed up by an EP called Chapel of the Chimes. They spent the next year or so constantly touring, building up a loyal fan base and, as Jamie hated San Jose, it was a great way to not just get away from San Jose, but to travel all over.
After 2002, when the touring stopped, Yvonne Chen left the band and Cory McCullough stopped touring with the band and instead focused on producing the next two albums. But then tragedy struck around that time as well: Jamie’s father, Michael, committed suicide. This was a real loss to Jamie, who was grateful to have had a father so hip, one that was as supportive and even guiding. In an article I read by Jamie, on the Huffington Post site, he wrote that his dad had come to one of their shows, one that didn’t have much of an audience, but he was there and afterward he told Jamie that it was a good show. This meant a lot to Jamie. Unfortunately, about a month later, Michael Stewart was dead.
As a way to cope with this loss as well as other issues going on in his life at the time, Xiu Xiu came out with 2003’s A Promise, Jamie having written all the songs.
Since then Xiu Xiu has put out a lot of music – many EPs, 7”’s & full-length CDs. They’ve also gone through several personnel changes. In 2003 Lauren Andrews left the band to focus on academic pursuits; by 2004 Caralee McElroy. With her addition, Xiu Xiu did a lot of touring throughout 2004 besides releasing Xiu Xiu’s third LP, Fabulous Muscles as well as a couple of split 7” releases: one with This Song is a Mess But So am I and one with Bunkbed. In 2005, they did four more split 7” collaborations. Besides the 12 full-length CDs, they’ve put out a LOT of split 7”s.
Anyway, as for this, their latest release, Angel Guts, Xiu Xiu sounds spectacular, fresh and quite different from their peers. Each song on here is a good cut. I’m not going to deconstruct each one, but for the interested, I want to mention a few tracks that stand out on t”Stupid in the Dark”, “Lawrence Liquors”, “Black Dick” and “Cinthya’s Unisex” are great examples of the dark, sometimes ominous, always stylish and slick, staccato beats that make up Angel Guts: Red Classroom.
For this latest incarnation, Xiu Xiu is made up of Stewart, Angela Seo with help from Ches Smith. For some reason, I have this vague feeling of having written a review for their 2012 album, Always. I checked and it’s nowhere to be found here, on Independent Review, but I may have written a review for Reviewer – the publication and website for whom I used to write on a regular basis. So this is definitely not the first that I’ve heard of Xiu Xiu. But, after listening to Angel Guts: Red Classroom I was really astonished at just how good they are. I must’ve received Always, which came out in 2012, during a time when I was being inundated, almost daily, with new music, constantly trying to keep up, which may be why I don’t remember what Always sounded like. One thing though, that I can count on is that, since Xiu Xiu is currently signed to Polyvinyl Records, based in Chicago, I had confidence that it would be a quality album, since I’ve received a lot of music from Polyvinyl over the past 9 years and just about everything I’ve reviewed I’ve liked. I’ve even been turned on to a few bands serendipitously, since I (starting when I was writing, full-time, for Reviewer) just happened to grab a couple CDs that happened to be of bands that were on Polyvinyl – one of those was I Do Perceive, the late-2004 release by Owen (Mike Kinsella), which, after having written the review, I continued to listen to it a lot: I really liked it. Joan of Arc is another band that I was turned on to, again, by sheer luck, having grabbed Boo! Human out of a box of CDs that had been sent in for review. Now they are one of my favorite bands and I have all their albums and all Owen releases as well. That’s why, when Polyvinyl sent me this new Xiu Xiu CD, I was happy to have it, even before I listened to it and I was not disappointed; quite the opposite in fact. Check out their website: http://www.xiuxiu.org or have a look at http://www.allmusic.com to hear some of their songs. Happy listening!! –KM.