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POP ALBUMS REVIEW

From private to public

The nature of male desire is explored with subtlety, delicacy and cathartic elan in a trio of intriguing, idiosyncratic efforts.

September 19, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Xiu Xiu

"The Air Force"

(Kill Rock Stars)

* * *

Junior Boys

"So This Is Goodbye"

(Domino)

* * *

Scissor Sisters

"Ta-Dah!"

(Universal Motown)

* * *

This is an awful time for ambiguity. Caught up in the blathering of talk-show self-promoters and video feeds from the bedrooms of reality TV, we forget the beauty of secrets. Mass culture's exhibitionist free-for-all dulls mutual understanding, reducing complex emotions to caricature. In other words: People should just shut up sometimes, and turn an ear within.

Perhaps all of this self-exposure is why many of pop's most intriguing new artists create realms that are almost pathologically private. There's the bucolic quiet of freak folk, the esoteric cacophony of noise rock and, as heard in new releases from Junior Boys and Xiu Xiu, the homophile nostalgia of electronic pop.

Homophile is the right word, as opposed to homoerotic or even "queer," because these artists aren't using music to claim a clear sexual identity. Instead, they take on male desire as a subject, and build big, claustrophobic soundscapes in which to explore its stereotypes and its taboos.

Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart combines art-rock with minimalist electronica to form an idiosyncratic palette for his enigmatic, often disturbing narratives. Stewart is working in a specific literary tradition: His stories borrow from writers such as Jean Genet and Dennis Cooper, gay men whose writing informs the legacy of "transgressive art."

Like those novelists, Xiu Xiu explores the eroticism of violence and the strange allure of shame. Stewart's subjects include suicide, bondage and the torment of the pedophile; his spare lyrics, set within entangled musical constructions, humanize these unmentionables. His pained vocals echo over clanging percussion, unmoored synthesizer lines, and lush piano or guitar; what he's saying is sometimes indecipherable, sometimes alarmingly clear.

Each Xiu Xiu song is a little hothouse where the forbidden grows, not free, but safe. The Junior Boys (who play the Troubadour on Monday) tap another corner of pop's closet, re-creating the sleek dance pop of the post-disco era, which so eloquently expressed the sexual confusion of the male androgyne.

Junior Boys singer-songwriter Jeremy Greenspan has a mellifluous whisper-croon that complements his music's sleek grooves and loops. Whether unfolding his own wistful love letters or relocating the Frank Sinatra chestnut "When No-One Cares" from the smoky bar to the empty dance floor, Greenspan expresses male desire with an uncommon delicacy.

His lyrics focus on moments of imminent regret: a lover's plea at a bedroom window, or the spiteful words that come after a snub; the time spent going through dusty dresser drawers, finding old conquests' torn calling cards.

In the 1980s, artists such as Bronski Beat and David Sylvian used a similar sonic palette. But there's a distance to Greenspan's perfectly constructed grooves and well-modulated lyrics that falls somewhere between ironic and mournful. He longs for the ambiguity his forebears lived within.

The opposite of hiding something is flaunting it -- exposing a secret with cathartic elan. That's the business of the Scissor Sisters, complementary opposites of Junior Boys and Xiu Xiu. These glam-pop revivalists, who headline the Shrine Expo Hall on Sept. 28, harbor nostalgia for the closet as something to kick open.

"Ta-Dah!," the band's second album (due in stores next Tuesday), mines the energy of gay liberation at its confrontational height, when drag queens rioted in the New York streets and dancing shoes were the cultural equivalent of combat boots.

Hyped-up dance-rock anthems abound on "Ta-Dah." The bass lines bounce, the strings swirl and Jake Shears wields a killer falsetto. Two songs even feature Elton John, the band's main source for gleeful thievery.

But Shears has a dark side -- his sometimes cynical lyrics show that he knows Rome always burns while the decadent fiddle. "Tomorrow's not what it used to be, we were born to die," he blissfully croons in "Intermission." Slipping little lines like that into his pop hits, Shears shows an interest in ambiguity too, reminding us that no party is free of a morning after.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

ann.powers@latimes.com

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