With Women as Lovers, out earlier this year on Kill Rock Stars, Xiu Xiu wears its dark preoccupations on its cover: photos of a faceless, out-of-focus woman trussed up in bondage ropes and rubber tubing. Those made uneasy by this sort of imagery should probably put the disc back on the shelf and stop reading this article -- unless it's a good kind of uneasy.
The Oakland, Calif., band's fluid lineup is currently comprised of primary vocalist and lyricist Jamie Stewart with Caralee McElroy and Ches Smith, but some things don't change: As always, to say that Xiu Xiu dwells in the shadows is an understatement. Here are elliptical narratives of child abuse ("Black Keyboard"), an older man's tortured passion for a young boy ("No Friend Oh!") and macabre titles ("You Are Pregnant, You Are Dead" and "Guantanamo Canto"). You might want to keep some Sylvia Plath handy to cheer you up when the going gets tough.
Which is not to say Women as Lovers doesn't have plenty of humor to it, however black: In the liner notes, Ches Smith is actually credited on one track for playing the guillotine. For all its goth-nite keyboards, "White Nerd" seems equally an homage and a skewering of those who wrap their despair in a pose, with such lines as "Oh you could have been more anti-yourself / so astoundingly unsilent." And the numerous mentions of hell (sometimes over funereal organ) are hard to take seriously when meows and woofs get similar repetition.
Against this fraught emotional backdrop, the band combines dysfunctional clangor, starkly rendered chamber-pop instrumentation and ragged electronics into something luminous and revelatory. Kicking off with "I Do What I Want, When I Want," the band somehow coaxes trashy percussion, distorted vibraphone and noodly sax into an undeniable hook, while "In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall" conjures a Mellon Collie bombast, even as Stewart declaims, "Passive as a toilet / eat it eat it eat it eat it." From there, some tracks are groove-based, like the titanic drums and madhouse glockenspiel of "You Are Pregnant, You Are Dead," while others are nearly arrhythmic; orchestral sweep also trades off with junk-shop clatter ("Child at Arms").
I'm not the first to say it -- and it was doubtless intentional on the band's part -- but the album's centerpiece, and perhaps its summation, is the oddly touching, pawn-shop cover of Queen and David Bowie's hit "Under Pressure." With Swans' Michael Gira trading vocals with Stewart and McElroy, you hear the song's simultaneous optimism and defeat; the icing on the cake is the way the song ends just short of the final payoff line, stalling out on "this is ourselves."
And despite Women as Lovers' disturbing content and damaging intensity -- or because of it -- it's tempting to agree.
Xiu Xiu with Prurient, Common Eider King Eider and Steve Boyle. 8 p.m. Fri., Aug 29. Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield. $8 ($10 at the door). All ages. 412-361-2262 or www.garfieldartworks.com