Xiu Xiu

Photograph: Hyunhye Seo

Music Hall of Williamsburg; Mar 23, 2008

Cult bands with a large and varied body of work can seem daunting for would-be new fans. Fortunately, initiates couldn’t ask for a better introduction to Xiu Xiu than its new Women as Lovers. The Bay Area band’s sixth full-length in eight years (among several singles, EPs and compilations) reconciles the extremes of its sound—vibrant, lush melodic passages; cacophonous interruptions; and Jamie Stewart’s dark lyrics—via a skewed yet persistent pop sensibility that includes a surprisingly straight cover of Queen’s 1981 hit “Under Pressure.”

Xiu Xiu’s current quartet lineup is even more focused in concert. Swells of keyboard and bowed bass occasionally churn up grooves reminiscent of Joy Division, while a steady rhythmic underpinning transforms the static album cut “Master of the Bump” into something apt to inspire the sort of self-conscious dancing it describes. The gear-packed stage is dominated by spires of percussion, while Caralee McElroy switches among melodica, xylophone and harmonium.

Yet the focal point remains the one instrument Xiu Xiu can’t leave home without: Stewart’s eccentric singing. On “Puff and Bunny,” he repeats the words “Hot pepper!” with sharp, high-pitched exhalations, as if a five-star Szechuan morsel just hit his tongue. Other times, he dips into a theatrical, almost unabashedly goth baritone.

So Xiu Xiu remains an acquired taste, while also becoming particularly accessible. Even listeners just discovering the band may be able to look back on 2008 and sigh, “I remember when…” with the same delight as fans who’ve been on board all along.

—Kurt B. Reighley