Cutting Edge

With Knife Play, San Jose's Xiu Xiu carves cathartic music from traumatic experience

"This is sort of a meatheadish way to put it, but life's a bitch," Stewart says. "A lot of really bad, bad things happen, and I think the way for us to deal with that -- instead of pretending like it didn't happen -- is to try to look at it in the face a little bit."

Early on in the group's career, Xiu Xiu won the admiration of Greg Saunier, drummer for San Francisco avant-noise act Deerhoof, by its willingness to express life's bleakest moments. "In an underground obsessed with daring and confrontation, [Xiu Xiu] stands out for me because they're so honest -- nakedly and brutally honest," Saunier explains in a recent e-mail. "And I have a hard time thinking of anyone doing something as daring or confrontational as that. Their music's so sweet on the surface, but then it finds a way to express all too accurately those feelings that I spend all my time trying to put out of my mind."

Knife Play finds catharsis in its uneasy alliance of cacophonous noise and unusual sounds. The songs teem with unexpected textures -- a baritone sax, a bass accordion, skittering percussion via traditional gongs, bells, and gamelans. "Poe Poe" pits seesawing synth lines against galloping beats, while "Dr. Troll" presses metallic guitar-screeching up against slow bell rhythms. Stewart's unabashed vocals preside over everything, whether he's wailing about breaking into a children's hospital ("I Broke Up (SJ)"), hanging oneself ("Suha"), or discovering HIV sores ("Hives Hives"). His voice is a fascinating instrument, able to move from a little boy's scream to the kind of lush, majestic tone that made Peters Gabriel and Murphy rich -- all in the space of one song.

Ralphie P.


Plays a Noise Pop show with the Extra Glenns and Rilo Kiley

Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 9 p.m.

Tickets are $8


Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market (at Sanchez), S.F.

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Although it may sound funny, Xiu Xiu is quite happy with Knife Play. Still, after completion of its first nationwide tour this month, the band plans on making a different kind of album. "We're going to do a straight club record -- basically pop songs that have dance music," Stewart says enthusiastically. "We listen to a ton of Wild 94.9, lots of freestyle. ... San Jose is the high-energy, freestyle house music capital of the U.S. It's sort of inescapable here."

Maybe the move is a concession to the hometown crowd, which would probably scratch its collective head at the group's morose experiments. Still, Xiu Xiu doesn't think its take on San Jose dance culture and suburban angst is too far off base.

"I think I just became comfortable with the idea of not necessarily having a song have some redemption at the end," Stewart says. "IBPA and Ten in the Swear Jar were about getting past things that were bad and finding a semipositive twist and learning from things. Those potentially positive things were manufactured by rote because we were afraid of making a song that was hands-down horrible."

By horrible, Stewart is referring to Xiu Xiu's moods, not its music. The band's tunes may be too unpolished for the dance floor or too experimental for some rock fans, but Xiu Xiu's risk-taking honesty and ambitious compositions set it apart from its peers. And if you need to chase away the blues, nothing could be better.

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