t’s a bit disconcerting to hear Xiu Xiu’s second album start with “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl,” a plaintive, restrained acoustic song. Accompanied only by tense, quiet strumming, singer Jamie Stewart tells a sordid story of marital infidelity from the point of view of the mistress, culminating in the chorus, “I like my neighborhood, I like my gun/ Driving my little car/ I am your girl and I will protect you.” The song’s surface delicacy is undercut by the bile in Stewart’s lyrics (and his typically impassioned delivery of them) and occasional flashes of dissonance like the skipping tape manipulation on the bridge.
Even so, it’s one of Xiu Xiu’s most conventional moments to date, and coming after the over-the-top insanity of last year’s Knife Play, this lovely song is downright shocking. The rest of the album, of course, is closer to Xiu Xiu’s totally fucked noise-pop of old, but the general mood is much calmer, building on the atmospheric new wave stylings of the Chapel of the Chimes EP. Thankfully, the band’s newfound restraint does nothing to dilute the impact of their unique synthesis of noise, 80s new wave and post-punk, and fractured pop. If anything, A Promise is a much more focused affair than Knife Play; the atmospheric surroundings only makes Stewart’s occasional manic outbursts even more potent.
On the bleep-filled “Sad Redux-o-grapher,” Stewart’s laidback delivery seems ready to explode at any moment; there’s a simmering tension beneath the tranquil surface that finally breaks as he screams “It did not cost me anything” into the silence. The song closes on a strange string coda that sounds like it came straight from a Godspeed You Black Emperor! album. Although nothing else on A Promise sounds quite like this track, it is indicative of the album’s general approach: Xiu Xiu seem to be reaching out, incorporating new sounds and styles, expanding the Joy Division meets the Cure meets a power tool aesthetic of their past work.
The album’s cumulative effect is an even greater uneasiness than that created by Xiu Xiu’s spazzier Knife Play. Now the songs veer crazily between moody depression and bursts of rage, encapsulating the entire manic-depressive cycle in a three-minute pop song. This emotional instability is the album’s core, and a welcome development from the mostly one-dimensional nature of the band’s first album. A few songs wallow a bit too much on the depressive side of the equation, and when the desired explosion doesn’t come, the songs often just fizzle out unsatisfactorily. When the new formula works, however -- as it does much of the time -- it makes for some of the group’s best moments yet.
The album comes full circle with a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” a doppelganger of Stewart’s own opening song “Sad Guerilla Pony Girl.” As in the opener, Stewart takes on the female point of view, completely inhabiting the persona of Chapman’s downtrodden narrator. Stewart’s delivery highlights the lyrics, making them the focus of a barebones instrumental backing, and his whispery, cracking voice completely trumps Chapman’s more upbeat version -- Stewart’s take on the song reveals it for the depressing, pessimist’s lullaby it is. After this high point (or rather, low point), the album closes with the freeform lunacy of “Ian Curtis Wishlist,” a tribute to the Joy Division singer in the form of a crazed, noisy lament. Stewart’s screams and stream-of-consciousness ranting provides the perfect closure, a nod to the band’s most obvious influence as well as a crucial rejection of those critics who would call them nothing more than a Joy Division tribute band. With A Promise, those accusations have never been less true; only two records into their career, Xiu Xiu have found their own voice, settling neatly into an eccentric niche only they could occupy.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01