Review: Xiu Xiu – ‘Nina’

Xiu Xiu Nina

Xiu Xiu

Nina (Graveface)

Result:  3.8 / 5.0

It’s hard to explain what makes Xiu Xiu tick. The Californian duo, consisting of Jamie Stuart and Angela Seo, have a musical aesthetic that resembles a continuously moving target, making it hard to hit on exactly what type of sound they actually create. This is not a bad thing, it simply means Xiu Xiu are a band that are pretty much impossible to pigeonhole.

Nina, as the name suggests, is a collection of reinterpretations of Nina Simone songs that serves as a kind of love letter to the soulful songstress. Some songs are well known (Don’t Smoke In Bed, See Line Woman) and some are more obscure (Flo Me La), but the choice of songs covers a broad scope of Simone’s back catalogue. Nina is really Stuart’s baby. Recording it over the course of a single day and consisting of first or second takes, his approach couldn’t fail to capture the immediacy and urgency of the raw material.

From the album opener, ‘Don’t Smoke In Bed’, it’s clear that Stuart has taken Simone’s songs and used them as a template to reimagine the tracks and represent them in a way that’s as challenging as it is innovative.  The album features a lot of free-form saxophone and fragmented beats that sit heavy in the ear. It’s almost as though the songs are being seductively poured into your ear. Stuart’s vocals have clearly been recorded at close range. Tracks like ‘Just Say I Love Him’ and ‘The Other Woman’  bring his delicate and fractured delivery impossibly close. It feels like he’s standing right next to you, almost whispering into your ear, sinister and seductive.

As the album continues tracks like ‘Four Women’ and ‘You’d Be So Nice’ crank up the jazz element that runs through the album. It’s certainly not supermarket muzak jazz, it’s the 4am, sour smoke and whiskey jazz you listen to when you want to channel the ghost of the blues. It’s sexy jazz, filled with horns blown to within a hair’s breadth of breaking point and frenetic, brushed drums – urgent and immediate.

Nina is an album only Xiu Xiu could have made. Don’t expect an easy listen. This album is here to challenge you. It somehow manages to be forceful, sinister, sweet and tender all at the same time. Sure, the starting point was a collection of songs that were already amazing, but Xiu Xiu’s mission for Nina was never to simply pay homage to a great artist (they do that too), but to rip out the painful essence of the songs whilst creating something strangely original in the process.

Nina is out on 3 December on Graveface records.

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