omebody must’ve slipped Xiu Xiu some Prozac after their emotional rollercoaster of a debut album, Knife Play. Their new EP, Chapel of the Chimes, is certainly a lot calmer than that effort—though it’s not necessarily any happier or more accessible. Instead, this disc finds the band mostly cutting back on the abrasive, cathartic noise attacks of their debut, often making a centerpiece of frontman Jamie Stewart’s angsty vocals.
Only “Jennifer Lopez (The Sweet Science Version)” really lays on the noise, cutting loose with foreboding guitar and percussion scrapes as Stewart moans and screams torturously. It evokes exactly the kind of harrowing, slightly uncomfortable feeling that characterized the best moments of the first album. In contrast, the opening “I Am the Center of Your World” has occasional outbursts of dissonant piano and bells, but much of the song is driven along solely by a minimal heartbeat rhythm. When things are moving, the track is gorgeously unbalanced, staggering along like a gladiator running the gauntlet; too often, though, the structure disintegrates and the track meanders along aimlessly.
The remainder of the EP is more similar to that quieter style than it is to any of Knife Play’s harsher moments. There are scattered hints of dissonance and aggression throughout—mostly in the bells, xylophones, and piano that are used as percussive touches—but the band’s focus here is on slow, moody laments filled with their distinctive backdrop of tinkling sound.
“Ten-Thousand-Times-a-Minute” and “King Earth, King Earth” both fall into that category, submerging the band’s arty tendencies under emotive, gloomy ballads. This prevalent mood of despair even pervades a closing cover of Joy Division’s “Ceremony.” The band’s best moment so far, it’s a schizophrenically cheerful take on the song that recalls the Cure at their most goth; the surface happiness obscures a deeper depression that inhabits every note of Stewart’s vocals.
This EP is a better choice than Xiu Xiu’s debut for the simple reason of its length. Stretched out over a full-length album, Stewart’s over-emoting on songs like the world-weary “King Earth, King Earth” could get really tiresome, really fast. But here, the new softer Xiu Xiu provides a nice change of direction, and there’s still enough variety packed into this brief recording to please most potential fans.
This record may not quite convince the band’s many detractors, but it certainly provides a much clearer suggestion that this group could soon develop into a truly great band. In the meantime, these five songs are the best available summation of Xiu Xiu’s unique brand of 80s flashback.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01