So incessantly creative is Jamie Stewart – pseudonym Xiu Xiu – that he may wax lyrical about “religious songs from the 1880s to 1920s” one moment, menacing to make a record involving reworkings of such songs, only to then return with a Nina Simone tribute record in tow the next. With what should be a more engaging, electronically inclined album due next year, from which we’ve already heard the sumptuously punitive Stupid in the Dark, his erraticism so apparently knows no limits, and yet never do you doubt for even a second his commitment to any which endeavour. And so we come to meet with Nina…
Nina, as exhibited by both the sticky Don’t Smoke in Bed and the sickened Just Say I Love Him, may be a smouldering jazz album in tone, but in timbre, it’s no less petrifying than any of Stewart’s more recent works. For it breeds this squeamish intimacy, whereby you can nigh on hear saliva slooshing about his mouth as and when he reiterates Simone’s woeful words. “Don’t wanna hear nobody chatter, ‘cause I know you cheat/ Right and wrong don’t matter, when you’re with me, my sweet” he’ll hiss during Don’t Explain, his voice a slither aurally redolent of something gloopy coming unstuck from an unwelcoming wall. Musically meanwhile, sparsity is unequivocally crucial, hanging notes and the most rudimentary rhythms imaginable combining with haunting strains of sax and the odd vanguardist scrape. “Hush now, don’t explain/ Don’t you know you’re my joy and you’re my pain?” he sneers, synopsising in a pithy fourteen words the upset infidelity brings, plus the ways in which it irreversibly alters the dynamics of any which relationship from whenever ago. The song itself is a cover of a cover, having originally been written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr. and performed by the former back in the ‘40s, although in seventy-odd years, never has it ever sounded more agonising than now.
Jazz of course, historically, has always been a somewhat cathartic medium, many of its more revered practitioners employing the genre as a vehicle for abreaction. And Stewart’s interpretation of the respective pasts of certain players is in itself strangely purgative. During Where Can I Go Without You?, he’ll chop and screw lyrics from Nat King Cole’s original, beginning: “I went to London to clear out my mind/ And on to Paris, for the fun I could find.” He breaks words off early, readjusting ‘couldn’t’ to ‘could’, thus simultaneously insinuating disconcertion and satirically suggesting his mild aversion to touring (‘Music is good for you. Touring is bad for you’ he wrote in an inspired column for The Huffington Post’s Gay Voices). But as an openly bi male who has recurrently faced difficulties when it comes to societal integration and subsequent peripherality, his appropriated lyrics feel impulsive, if not completely reactionary. For Stewart currently resides in Durham, North Carolina – ‘a little city (it’s being generous to even say it’s a city)’ he deems ‘Quasi-Liberal Southern Sub-Utopia’ in another blog post for Gay Voices. Both London and Paris, by contrast, represent two rather more culturally embracive places – metropoli where he may be able to rid his brain of the parochial bigotry of his current dwelling, and perhaps even find more like-minded individuals of a similarly receptive, flexible sexual persuasion. This is probably excessive probing for a few lines in a song, but its macabre backing – one lightly reminiscent of he and Eugene S. Robinson’s Sal Mineo – tethers Stewart back to small-town stagnation and enduring gloom. “I wanted to travel, and I wanted romance/ So I just took off and chased my rainbow across the sea/ But it’s all over – I’m tired of faces, and quaint old places/ Baby, if you won’t be there with me” he continues, impressionistically contorting words first writ this time by Peggy Lee and Victor Young. It has little, to nothing in common with Simone’s smoky jazz bar take.
We hear the more expressive side of the genre in the largely instrumental You’d Be So Nice and the stop-start, pots, pans, etcetera-abetted flow of Flo Me La; the upbeat bombast of Four Women (one of only a handful in fact first penned by Simone herself) or the skippy, skittering See Line Woman; while woozy slide geetar corrals us into an itself quaint space during The Other Woman. But it’s jaunty shanty Pirate Jenny that’s the most inevitable, and with it inspiratory pick here compiled, Bertolt Brecht first writing such Schadenfreudian lyrical content as: “You people can watch while I’m scrubbing these floors/ And I’m scrubbing the floors while you’re gawking/ Maybe once you tip, and it makes you feel swell/ In this crummy Southern town/ In this crummy old hotel.” Stewart is the metaphorical skivvy of the piece, and one who, ‘due to a completely unexpected turn of events’, now just so happens to live in a ‘Quasi-Liberal Southern Sub-Utopia’ himself. His adoption of Brecht’s lyrics explicitly portray the ache of his plight and yet for once, musically, the scene unravels against a relatively jovials backdrop, not least for an artist renowned for his administering of avant-garde, aural torture.
True to form, the tide eventually turns, Jamie pasting a smirk across his face: “You toss me your tips, and look out to the ships/ But I’m counting your heads as I’m making the beds/ ‘Cause nobody’s gonna sleep here tonight/ Nobody’s gonna sleep here… Nobody.” A story of manslaughter, the socially subjugated achieving sweet vengeance, while we may not want for Stewart to have the ‘religious zealots, frat boys, and army families’ of Durham chained up and delivered to him for divine purgation, a redressing of the social injustice he suffers wouldn’t go amiss. The song then itself becomes increasingly gruesome; torturously self-sacrificial even, as he continues snivelling of a “dock swarming with men”.
Stewart has paid Simone the ultimate tribute in Nina, opting to revise some of her lesser known pieces and interpretations in order that her legacy be replenished. And we can but hope that, in return, he’s shown an enlightening path toward social acceptance sooner, rather than later. For in the same way that Simone rightly felt affronted by archetypal American prejudice, recurrently confronting the country’s stance on race and gender, Stewart could yet prove an equivalently vital spokesperson for those who bend genders as he does genres.
Released: December 3rd, 2013 [Graveface Records]