Published Dec 03, 2013Jamie Stewart is one of the most intense personalities in music today. Having battled depression for years — due to his father's apparent suicide back in 2002, as well as the disastrous presidency of George "Dubya" Bush — Stewart has continually channelled his energy into his collaborative art-pop project, Xiu Xiu. Continuing his form of musical therapy, his latest release is a meditation on the works of Nina Simone, an idea formulated after a bad concert in Austin and a good conversation with Michael Gira (Swans).
Obviously, Stewart does not have the vocal chops of Simone, admitting as such in the press release, in his typically self-deprecating fashion, that her singing is way over his head. However, working closely with Ches Smith, who has been a regular Xiu Xiu contributor since their 2002 debut album, Knife Play, as well as enlisting Mary Halvorson, Tim Barnes, Tony Malaby, and Andrea Parkins, Stewart churns out a fresh take on her legendary material.
His voice contorts from a near whisper to an unstable, uncomfortably lower register over vibrant free jazz instrumentals made from organic timbres, save a few synth flourishes in the texture of "Pirate Jenny." On paper, it's rather odd to hear a white guy sing such a racially charged song as "Four Women," but Stewart's brushes with homophobia as a bisexual living in Durham, North Carolina have given him firsthand experience with the seething underbelly of human prejudice.
The sense that this project comes from a place of honesty and respect is clear. Unfortunately, as ever, his voice remains the double-edged sword that cuts the enjoyment of his work in either a "love it" or "hate it" direction, and inviting a comparison to one of the greatest jazz singers and political activists in American history highlights his limitations.