REVIEW: Xiu Xiu at Cactus Club

Acclaimed experimental rock trio Xiu Xiu took the stage at Cactus Club on Wednesday night with a packed house; it was the band’s first time in Milwaukee since 2012. Opening for them was Taffy Puller, the improvisational duo of guitarist Chris Rosenau and drummer Jon Mueller.

Xiu Xiu is Jamie Stewart (vocals, guitar), Angela Seo (vocals, keyboards, auxiliary percussion) and David Kendrick (drums). With a sound that has encompassed the styles of art rock, post-punk, electronic, industrial and noise pop, the project began in 2002 in San Jose, California with an original lineup consisting of Stewart, Cory McCulloch, Yvonne Chen and Lauren Andrews. The band’s name is a reference to the 1998 Chinese drama film “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl.” Stewart’s lyrics and songwriting have dealt with topics such as internal tragedy, love, sex, abuse and social issues, often presented as “narratives about the internal effects of external events” as Stewart said in an interview with Talkhouse.

Debut album “Knife Play” and accompanying EP “Chapel of the Chimes” came out the same year Xiu Xiu formed; shortly after in early 2003, the band’s sophomore album “A Promise” was released. Although the band’s style is often characterized by cacophonous and idiosyncratic song structures, layered and atypical instrumentation as well as morbid subject matter, Xiu Xiu have leaned into more conventional pop accessibility with records such as 2004’s “Fabulous Muscles”, 2006’s “The Air Force” and 2017’s “Forget.” They have also released two tribute albums: 2013’s “Nina” is a tribute to Nina Simone and 2016’s “Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks”, as the title implies, consists of covers from the Twin Peaks soundtrack. The band’s latest album “Ignore Grief” came out in March and features orchestral instrumentation with a modern classical-industrial approach.

Angela Seo joined Xiu Xiu in 2009, and their 2010 record “Dear God: I Hate Myself” would be her first with the band; interestingly, many songs on “Dear God” were written chiptune-style with a Nintendo DS. The band attracted Internet attention from the controversial music video for the album’s title track, which depicts Seo vomiting on Stewart. Longtime drummer Ches Smith departed Xiu Xiu in 2018; David Kendrick (Devo, Sparks) was recruited as their new drummer in 2022.

Xiu Xiu’s set on Wednesday was balanced with old and new material. They performed in a stripped-down capacity several tunes off “Ignore Grief” in addition to two songs from “A Promise” (“Apistat Commander”, “Ian Curtis Wishlist”) and other back catalog tunes including “Fabulous Muscles”, “Girl With Basket of Fruit”, “The Fox and the Rabbit” and their cover of “Falling” from the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Stewart’s vocal delivery is capable of emotional potency whether it be through startling outbursts or subdued tension; they sing with the profound weight of each tale told, amplified by the sonic atmospheres and clangor from Seo and Kendrick. Seo sang lead on a handful of songs as well.

Whether Xiu Xiu are playing loud and stridently or soft and patiently, you are ensnared from start to finish. It was a rad experience getting to see them.

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