album reviews: Songs: Ohia molds a country masterpiece, Xiu Xiu divides joy, and Lil’ Kim pays her plastic surgeon

Xiu Xiu
A Promise

There are two ways to listen to music. You can use music as filler for other activities: driving, studying, making love, whatever. Or, you can also really listen to music, casting aside all distractions in order to better experience and comprehend the art as it has been created. If you aren’t interested in delving into music and exploring its every facet and feature, stop reading. Xiu Xiu is not the band for you.
Xiu Xiu takes their name from the Chinese film Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl, a film that only rivals its absurdity with its hopelessness. For those that heard Xiu Xiu’s last EP, Chapel of the Chimes, a sorrowful tone resounds throughout that album which carries over into this release. However, the opening track, “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl,” hints at unseen hope within this recording.
Comparisons have been made between lead singer Jamie Stewart and Robert Smith of The Cure. Perhaps this is true thematically, but the sound of the vocals is more reminiscent of the Omaha singer/songwriter sound (think Bright Eyes or Simon Joyner) crossed with the exuberance and gritty edge of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. It may be no coincidence then, that the closer on this album is a plaintiff melody entitled “Ian Curtis Wishlist.”
Much of this record is spent fiddling with bizarre instrumentations, trying to find the sound that melds most perfectly with Stewart’s tortured vocals. In addition to traditional drums/guitar combos, each track uses feedback, toy sounds, and programmed computer glitchery to create a new atmosphere for the band’s experimentation. Xiu Xiu has found the perfect combination on the track “Apistat Commander,” which combines a half-dance-y minimal beat with lots of feedback and detuned synth noise to produce an unsettled feeling mirrored by the lyrics and the vocal delivery.
This record is not a source for background music, but if you are looking for a CD that challenges your idea of music as well as rewarding you with a fresh take on unique expression, this is your new favorite CD. If nothing else, it’s worth listening to just to hear Xiu Xiu’s unique take on Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”

– James Hush
Lil’ Kim
La Bella Mafia
* 1/2

As far as female rappers go, they usually stop before they go anywhere. Lil’ Kim has taken every opportunity that she’s been given. It’s too bad that Biggie can’t feed her anymore, because now she’s desperate like a female gremlin in an elevator.
If rap today has taught us anything it’s that shouting out B.I.G’s name is enough to get people shaking their ass. Juggling with that assumption, people should be moving to almost every single one of Kim’s songs. Ok, it’s embarrassing to admit, but I can sit through most of this album. There are banging beats (at least for the next few months) but the material is so tired; it’s hard to believe that people can still make songs about their money being more legit than other people’s money. Kim loves Hummers and hates hummers, what a surprise. Even though the production is the only thing somewhat fresh on this album, there are a bunch of snaggle tooth beats in there too.
Havoc from Mobb Deep pops up to intro “Hold it Now,” a song that he produced, even though it’s basically the instrumental to the Beasties’ classic “Paul Revere.” Every skit on the album is terrible; not that skits are ever good, but these are fantastically worthless. The hook to “This is a Warning”: “Someone’s gonna poison your food/ Someone’s putting tags on your toes,” sounds like some kind of joke (plus: do food and toes rhyme?). As a matter of fact, the only time a rhyme sounds alright on La Bella Mafia is when it’s someone else (Twista, 50 cent, Styles P) or a dusty B.I.G. bar. Kim’s plastic body has spawned a plastic album, but for some reason it’ll be gold in another week and I’ll still try and dance with your girlfriend when “The Jump Off” featuring Miami’s Mr. Cheeks comes on.

– Sven Barth

Songs: Ohia
The Magnolia Electric Co.

From the opening notes of “Farewell Transmission,” the first track on the new Songs: Ohia record, it’s apparent that we’re in for something new. When I get promo CDs from labels, I try my best not to read the bullshit review sticker on the front of the cases, as they usually read like hip references picked out of a hat: “This is what Captain Beefheart would have made if he had heard Kid 606” or “Angular art-punk ala A Common Ratio but with more of a mid-Eighties Miles Davis influence.”
Naturally, I was a bit skeptical when someone said that this record landed “somewhere on the radar sonically between Bob Dylan’s Desire and Bob Seger’s Beautiful Loser,” but by the time I got through the first chorus of “Farewell Transmission,” I understood the ambitious connection. Songs:Ohia (Jason Molina) has shed the stripped down instrumentations of Ghost Tropic and Impala in exchange for a full band ’70s rock sound. Molina’s signature vocal stylings remain intact, his voice wavering on even the most confident of lyrical outbursts. It’s a haunting delivery that syncs so well with this disc’s distorted riffs and wailing slide guitar, I wondered why Songs: Ohia hadn’t been making this type of music all along. When “Farewell Transmission” creeps to an end after seven and a half minutes, it miraculously feels like three.
“I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost,” the album’s second track, is simply the best cut off this record. The intro baits you into believing that Molina has returned to a more comfortable equation, accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a lyric-free chorus in the background. Without warning, it slides into a dark backwoods rocker – the kind of song drunk rednecks would listen to if they had any taste. My only gripe with this track is that at just over three minutes, it’s literally too short.
By the third track, “Just Be Simple,” it becomes painfully obvious that there is not enough well written country music in the world. Molina’s simple, honest approach to songwriting lends this weary ballad more Midwestern legitimacy than all the world’s pickup trucks and cowboy boots ever could. “And everything you hated me for, honey there was so much more, I just didn’t get busted.” Teetering on a non-existent perch somewhere between bravado and resignation, Molina captures in one song what it took David Allen Coe an entire album to suggest.
By track four, “Almost Was Good Enough,” a mud-splattered malaise wraps itself around your heart, and Molina makes the painful shift from a world-weary romantic to a jaded cynic, but not in an obnoxiously ’90s Janeane Garofalo kind of way. The gloom gets so thick mid-song that Molina actually makes an aside, “Did you really believe, (come on, did you really believe) that everyone makes it out?” While the tempo is still more upbeat than most of the other tracks on this record, the sullen ’70s Southern rock vibe keeps this track more of a drinker than a dancer. This is when the comparison to Bob Seger really starts to make sense.
Only the most diehard country lovers will appreciate the fifth cut on this record, “The Old Black Hen,” as Molina hands the vocal reins over to Lawrence Peters, a guest vocalist elsewhere on the album. Peters delivers straight and pure, and the result is a song that would sound at home on a compilation next to Loretta Lynn and Bill Anderson. Slightly distorted guitar chords join a tinny honky-tonk piano and (yes) fiddle players – the most faithfully textbook country arrangement on the LP.
Has Scout Niblett always sounded this much like Cat Power’s Chan Marshall? This question cannot be ignored when Niblett takes over lead vocals on the album’s sixth song, “Peoria Lunch Box Blues.” As the title suggests, this song recreates the bland, stagnant surroundings of suburban Illinois during a rainy fall day. Niblett does a much better job than Peters of invoking the spirit of Molina, preciously stashed away in his beautiful lyrical composition.
Molina is back on track seven, “John Henry Split My Heart.” This song brings to mind the road anthems of the ’70s, songs that consumed the spirit of the open road, driving across six states just because you’re able to do so. That trip is actually a perfect metaphor for this album in general. Looking out at an endless horizon of potential and mystery, Molina occasionally looks back over his shoulder to reflect on his past choices, in both life and music.
The final cut of the album, “Hold On Magnolia,” meshes Songs: Ohia’s newly honed country influences with the sincere blues that put Didn’t It Rain, his last album, on a lot of last year’s top ten lists. If the initial response to this record at WVUM is any indication, Magnolia Electric Co. will be included on the same lists for 2003, and it deserves to be.

– James Hush

The staff of Life & Art can be reached at New tracks by Xiu Xiu and Songs: Ohia (sorry, no Kim) can be heard on WVUM 90.5.