A double shot of creepy-ass California indie eccentricity awaits the bravely patient. Up first, fêted singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart, a scruffily handsome 22-year-old San Francisco Academy of Art dropout whose debut album, Oh Me Oh My...The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit
, was anointed the
insider's outsider-art commodity of 2002. Though its fractured folk songs and audio-vérité non-production are so compelling because of their total dissonance with what's going on beyond the blurry edges of his personal universe, Banhart's remarkable album is best heard outside the dull roar that's sprung up around it; his is the kind of idiosyncratic talent--an ability to reimagine old Mississippi Delta blues as a product of myth-absorbed British folk music--that's easy to picture being corrupted by the harsh handling of hotheaded hipsters. Ones different from you and me, I mean.
San Jose-based headliners Xiu Xiu sound equally fragile on their second album, A Promise. Not necessarily instrumentally, since even when they're playing quietly, which is more often than you'd expect from a band on a Kill Rock Stars sister label, they're threatening to break out into one of the maelstroms of post-punk noise that eventually swallows "Brooklyn Dodgers"; closer "Ian Curtis Wishlist" eulogizes the Joy Division front man with a blast of little-star twinkles that smothers a Sigur Rós-style string drone. But, like Banhart, vocalist Jamie Stewart seems to view singing as an act of streaming consciousness: The band's cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" finds him mumbling through the lyrics, emphasizing certain words and phrases seemingly as they pop out on the page at him. A Promise is unsettling because you begin to fear that Stewart may say anything, and instantly regret it.