ALBUM REVIEW: Xiu Xiu, OH NO
Being a new listener to Xiu Xiu is a little bit like seeing a Lars Von Trier film for the first time. That is to say, the portrait the artist paints me is a very ambiguous mix of ugliness and beauty. It’s hard to even attempt to criticize what I’m seeing. The song structures of Xiu Xiu’s music are so jagged and unwelcoming, even on the poppier tracks. The theatrical vocals from Jamie Stewart are technically proficient and sound downright operatic on track’s like the cover of “Falling” from Twin Peaks, but then he’ll turn around and make a frantic and beautiful mess as on 2006’s “Boy Soprano”. To grade Xiu Xiu against any other artist would be an impossible feat, the best way to grade one of their albums, in my opinion, is just to figure out the theme they're going for and judge them by how well they execute it.
Between albums, the band’s style and purpose shifts drastically. 2012 saw them doing a full album of Nina Simone covers, 2014 Angel Guts: Red Classroom saw them making a synthpunk (concept?) album, in 2015 they made 38-minutes of noise with Merzbow and I still don’t know what the fuck was going on with Girl with Basket of Fruits, it was Xiu Xiu refusing to be pinned down. On their latest album, OH NO, Xiu Xiu has seen fit to make a duets album with well known indie artists like Liars, Owen Pallett and Twin Shadow. To be honest with you, this album is really weird and not what I expected at all. I think the best way to properly describe this album is just taking it track-by-track.
“Sad Mezcalita” with Sharon Van Etten - This song really opens the album off pretty well. The instrumentation is sparse at first with just some light guitars and drums but slowly builds to a crescendo with the dueling vocals of Stewart and Van Etten. Stewart’s vocals sound so dire as the background begins to open up with synths and cymbals. Van Etten’s spoken word also fits in well and juxtaposes nicely with the very loud and proud singing on the chorus.
“I Cannot Resist” with Drab Majesty - The pianos on this song remind of Watchmen for some reason, stabbing the listener with emotion, and Jamie’s vocals definitely aid in that effect. The ramping up of shakers and beeps toward the middle of the track leads into a nocturnal jungle field recording segment, but after that the track completely falls off. The phrase “bing-bang-bonko-boo” should not be placed on a song, or sung in that inflection. As a fan of Drab Majesty’s gothwave aesthetic, I was hoping the track would go more in that direction. The song “One Hundred Years” goes in that direction, so it wouldn’t have been out of place for this record. A lack of good ideas ruins this track for me.
“The Grifters” with Haley Fohr - By this point in the album, I can definitely appreciate the range of features he uses. Not only does he get straightforward ‘80s revivalists like Twin Shadow, but he also has more baroque and avant-garde people like Fohr aka Circuit Des Yeux. The way their vocals intertwine are unique for sure, she really just sounds like a more weeping female counterbalance to Stewart. More folky harps, strings and percussion in the background give the whole production a marching feel, this track is well done and the feature is utilized appropriately.
“Goodbye For Good” with Greg Saunier - Another thing I really like about this project is how intimate it is. Xiu Xiu is composed of Stewart and Angela Seo, but on this album Stewart does all the singing. Stewart has been the only consistent member of the band in it’s near 20-year run, and he is dueting with single musicians. Like on this track he made a song with the founding member of Deerhoof, but he’s not listed as that, he listed by his government name. Just an interesting way to do this kind of album. I really like how blistering and intense the instrumental on this track is, the guitars really sounded electrocuted and the two of them trading bars sounds like it’s building towards a crash, which happens at the very end. Horror strings and smashing cymbals soundtrack this overbearing doom that is slowly lurking toward my ears. This is a great song. Very subtle.
“OH NO” with Susanne Sachsse - For this song he tapped a German actress known for her starring role in the political thriller/gay porn film The Raspberry Reich. I don’t know if her vocal is sampled from the film or this is original, but her appearance is brief. I like this song regardless, it feels pretty regular with it’s quickly strummed guitars and “OH NO OH NO OH NO!” chorus but it has some cool additional elements like woman screaming that give it a weird sort of edge.
“Rumpus Room” with Liars - This is a really weird song. I’ve never heard someone bring up Flaming Hot Cheetos or Takis lyrically before. Liars are a good addition to this track, they add a lot of energy to the “Rumpus Rumpus room room!” chorus, which to be honest is just slightly cringe. This is definitely a better album for solo, headphone listening. It has a lot of really freaky and experimental parts that are best experienced without the judgement of some normies. This song, oddly, enough is a little too straightforward and doesn’t do a whole lot for me.
“Fuzzing Gong Fight” with Angela Seo - By her inclusion as a feature with Xiu Xiu, does that mean she’s not in Xiu Xiu? But she composed all the songs with Stewart? I have no clue. All I can say is this track is much better than the last. The background is very distorted and intense, almost like something from Twin Peaks Season 3, like it’s rock based but it’s very nocturnal and scary. Stewart and Seo have really striking vocal performances that combine and elevate one another. I guess they’re two different artists dueting in the context of this track? I still don’t understand that fully.
“I Dream of Someone Else Entirely” with Owen Pallett - This is definitely an odd one. It’s sparse and layered at the same time, there are guitars, synths, drums and two sets of vocals but it sounds hollowed out. Stewart’s vocals stay pretty calculated and steadfast as Pallett goes from spoken word to musical theater by the end of the track. Even the chorus sounds like it could be from any number of Broadway shows. It definitely has a lot of character in it’s simplicity and it can be emotional at times too.
“One Hundred Years” with Chelsea Wolfe - As someone that’s never listened to Chelsea Wolfe, I wasn’t sure what to expect here. Strangely, this is one of my favorite tracks on the album. I’m a huge fan of straightforward but drawn on industrial rock music like Ministry or most recently The Horrors. To hear those opening synths was a breath of fresh air from the doom and gloom of this whole album, the dark energy of this track is what makes it work 100%. There are certain points where I don’t think their vocals really come together all that well, but the best parts of this track patch that issue up for me.
“A Classic Screw” with Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo - Stewart teams up with an Italian avant-garde musician to mixed results. I really don’t like how the spoken word vocals are treated on this track or any other track here, they always feel so out of place and isolated, they drain all the momentum a track has to offer. I don’t like the chanting of “A Classic Screw” at the end of the track or all the weird helium screaming. I don’t like this track.
“It Bothers Me All The Time” with Shearwater - It feels as the track list gets deeper, the luster of this album has worn on me a bit. There is this very ugly horn that pops up in the middle of this track that feels purposeless and irritating. It doesn’t really build into anything either, just a more creepy atmosphere. Stewart sounds great on this track, if not a little too faint, but his voice can’t do enough to interest me that much on this one.
“Saint Dymphna” with Twin Shadow - Just like the Drab Majesty collab, I didn’t anticipate that this song would be this way. All I’ve heard from Twin Shadow are ‘80s pop tracks, really great ones like “Slow” and “Castles In The Snow”, but nothing that would even accidentally be classified as experimental. While this is one of the more “poppy” tracks here, it still sounds like that Nick Cave album “Carnage”. It really does belong in an A24 horror film. So uplifting but soul-taking at the same time. Excellent track.
“Knock Out” with Alice Bag - Alice Bag is known in the underground scene for her high energy, old school pop-punk sound, one that Xiu Xiu just doesn’t engage in. I’m on the fence about this song to be honest, the pairing isn’t that great. The strummed guitar, U2 sound they have is really cool and I like how it transitions smoothly to more echoey, synth sections. I just simply don’t like Alice Bag’s contribution. We get her saying “knockout” a few times, we get her doing some stream-of-consciousness poetry that fades into nothing as well. It’s really not very good
“A Bottle of Rum” with Liz Harris - The best song on the entire record. Technique-era New Order electro mixed with acoustic guitars style, very non-experimental as well in a good way. There are slide guitars and buzzing keys, Liz Harris takes over the song, singing in a very hushed but seductive voice. Even Stewart’s more theateric vocals find their place amongst the sweet noise. It gives an air of hope at the end of an album that is filled with a lot of serious and sad moments. It still feels grand and like it’s doing something entirely new without trying too hard or giving the listener the short end of the stick on a bad experiment. “ANTS” is annoying and should just be muted and not counted in the tracklisting.