At a time when even the most stalwart rock listener is being forced to deal with the pointlessness of playing an instrument in an age where seemingly every conceivable idea can be found, sampled and incorporated, it is a rare recording that reinforces the importance of fingers on strings. Surprisingly enough, this reminder also comes from a group whose work is better known for programmed elements like its signature HI-NRG beats – dirty thumps that sound like they are coming from a club three blocks away – oscillating keyboards and strings that may or may not be samples. Considering their frostiness, similar in effect to Portishead despite the concurrent racket, it wouldn’t make much of a difference either way.
Although the trembling, theatric voice of singer Jamie Stewart would always ensure an organic quality in Xiu Xiu’s music, a large part of the band’s emotional effect was due to the distant, frigid air of the music. Such a pairing suggested Stewart as some tragic mythological figure: isolated from the world, yet cursed with a hyperawareness of human suffering, allowed to vent his tantrums on record, accompanied solely by the harsh tundra winds.
The same could not be said of the instrumentation, sparse as it is, on the group’s latest effort, consisting of acoustic versions of songs culled mainly from their previous records. While the majority of the songs may be familiar to Xiu Xiu’s growing legion of fans, excepting two new songs and a Smiths cover, the sparse treatments completely reinvent their source material.
To hear a song like “I Broke Up,” a highlight of 2001’s Knife Play, and a recipient of the “thump-thump” treatment that was so prevalent on the album, played with only a hesitant acoustic guitar, subtly inverts the track’s emotional content. While the previously released version had felt like a jubilant celebration of self-destruction, the understated version on Fag Patrol – replacing the infamous screaming midsection with eerie muttering – conveys a sense of defeat and real danger that the original seemed so valiantly to be fighting.
The change that occurs within that song is representative of the whole recording. To put it in a few words, and to be grossly ignorant of the divide between author and narrator, it sounds as though Stewart no longer wants to talk about his problems. Perhaps just as importantly, his guitar playing shows the same reluctance; you can hear Stewart’s fingers protesting every chord before it is finally allowed to scuttle to the surface.
While some were hesitant to trust the histrionic freak-outs of previous Xiu Xiu records, the recordings on Fag Patrol convey disturbingly familiar emotions: the depressive soul reluctant to spill his guts. The calculation that Xiu Xiu has been accused of is cleverly addressed once, in the first few seconds of the record, when Stewart starts a song, slowly, and is asked by a voice in the background to stop and play it slower. Such an opening clearly tells the listener, “You are in for a deliberately slow and depressing 40 minutes of music. Be forewarned.”
After the introduction, the music speaks for itself. From the heartbreaking opener “Helsabot,” about a worker whose only solace is alcohol, through the equally damaging “Dr. Troll,” which addresses Xiu Xiu’s recurring theme of gender identity, until a closing track, “Nieces Pieces,” that could only be called, well, heartbreaking, this seemingly gentle recording provides an essential contrast to Xiu Xiu’s available catalog.