Xiu Xiu's Quiet Intensity

Xiu Xiu's Quiet Intensity
Sometimes quiet sounds can be just as intense as bombastic bass beats or screeching noise. Just take La Foret (on the 5 Rue Christine label), the latest emotional opus from San Jose duo Xiu Xiu (pronounced "shoe shoe"), for vibrant living proof. If the album were a love story, it would begin with the abandoned lover alone, heartbroken and devastated, being plagued by inescapable memories of lost joy. Such is the achingly intimate subject of "Clover," La Foret's hushed opener and a song that expertly exhibits Xiu Xiu's current fascination with quiet intensity, a characteristic that's always been part of their unique mixture of tender theatricality, noisy aesthetic and, occasionally, thumping electro, but that has never been so prevalently pushed to the fore. Where past releases, like last year's riveting Fabulous Muscles, mostly used electronics, guitar chords and raw beats to drive Xiu Xiu's poignant portraiture home, La Foret opts for more delicate and classical instruments, such as vibraphone, harmonium, tuba, cello, clarinet and autoharp in its songs, saving the noisy, violent outbursts for rarer occasions.

But this new direction was by no means entirely conscious. "I think it's just where it ended up going," says singer, lyricist and multi-instrumentalist Jamie Stewart. "I think we recorded three or four songs and were noticing they were less rock- or dance-oriented than the other ones, so by the time it was done we weren't really surprised that it was quieter and more delicate, but it seems to be what was naturally coming out at the time."

Not surprising, considering Xiu Xiu's songs are primarily concerned with human experiences and the often heart-wrenching ways they internalize within people — specifically, their friends. "I think that will be the only constant about Xiu Xiu," says Stewart. "All of the songs are about real things. I don't really know what the compulsion is. I'm still figuring it out. Maybe when the band is done I'll be able to think about that a little more objectively, but I'm pretty sure that this will be the idea that defines Xiu Xiu and if we want to do different stuff, probably we will end up doing it as a different group."

The idea of Xiu Xiu's chief members, cousins Stewart and Caralee McElroy, opening up to other projects isn't an unlikely one — their albums are filled with inspired guest help from a plethora of players, such as the members of beat-driven noise assault unit Yellow Swans, with whom Xiu Xiu are heading out on tour in late August. The two cousins also recently recorded Ciaotistico, a collaboration with mysterious Italian experimental rock outfit Larsen, due out on Important Records in September.

The experience of recording with Larsen was far different than what Stewart and McElroy were used to. "We did it really fast and Xiu Xiu stuff always takes a long time," says Stewart. "We basically just wrote and recorded a song a day for the ten days that we had together to work on stuff, so that was really fun and exciting. If you are familiar with what Xiu Xiu or Larsen sound like, you wouldn't be completely shocked that we made it."

Besides, you can rest assured anything Xiu Xiu performs will exhibit their trademark naked intimacy. "People who are playing with an open heart in the most open definition of what playing with an open heart can be," says Stewart, "is the most important aspect to me as a listener."