Music Critic Ben Forsdick reviews Xiu Xiu’s new record which features different collaborations on each track but maintains its stylistic composition to create a well-rounded and successful album
Few experimental groups have cultivated a sound as varied as Xiu Xiu’s. The band have been releasing music for nearly two decades, constantly guided by bandleader Jamie Stewart’s desire for constant reinvention with each album cycle. Conceptuality is at Xiu Xiu’s core; they’ve released a Nina Simone covers album, played the music of Twin Peaks and released their last album in 2019; the harrowing and visceral Girl with Basket of Fruit. It was an album that saw Stewart aggressively transform his urgent vocal delivery into a frantic frenzy, all accompanied by Angelo Seo’s chaotic arranging and production skills. Indeed, the devastating degrees of brutality that infest Girl with Basket of Fruit are present through much of Xiu Xiu’s discography. They are rarely a band for those of an uneasy disposition. However, with OH NO, is appears that Stewart has turned a corner.
What I mean by this is not so much that the darkness of Xiu Xiu has vanished, it is still an integral part of this new record. The corner, that which Stewart has passed, relinquishes a previous theme of isolation and replaces it with one of collaboration. OH NO is a duets album. Stewart, for the first time ever, is vocally accompanied by a guest musician on every one of this project’s 15 tracks. For stylistic consistency, each one of these collaborations is filtered through Stewart’s instrumental palette and Angelo Seo’s production lens. For a project that is so heavily reliant on collaboration, OH NO is a wonderfully holistic album. Each vocal guest is chosen with great care and this leads to some stunning chemistry between various performers throughout this record’s runtime.
Take the opener ‘Sad Mezcalita.’ Sharon Van Etten’s vocals compliment Stewart’s timid delivery and inflections perfectly. The track is demonstrative of some of the ornate production and euphoric builds that characterise this album’s compositional and mixing approaches. The chorus is sounded with cymbal crashes and gongs that subsequently return on ‘Goodbye for Good,’ a song whose jagged, elongated and percussive crescendi builds to one of the record’s most climactic moments. Much of the core songwriting is largely straightforward and borrows from the patience building approaches of genres like post rock. Angelo Seo’s production allows this approach to manifest itself effectively. This record has an enormous dynamic range and Xiu Xiu’s ability to be creative with something as straightforward as volume is one of many aspects that makes this record appealing.
This album is regularly euphoric, with this euphoria portrayed most overtly towards the end of the record. The track ‘Saint Dymphna’ sounds closer to a musical theatre number than the harshness of Girl with Basket of Fruit. The writing is full of grandeur and Stewarts’ vocal delivery is one his most passionate on the record. This is followed by the tracks ‘Knock Out’ and ‘Bottle of Rum,’ the latter featuring Liz Harris (Grouper). These tracks are the closest to traditionally structured songs that this release has to offer and both feature almost sugary production qualities. Regardless, they function well as late album tracks that tie together any loose threads that this record unwound during the early stages. With this in mind, it is a shame that these early stages of the record are some of it he weakest. ‘Grifters’ is a particularly forgettable moment and ‘I Cannot Resist’ is a little too much of a slow burner. The gospel inspired vocals on this track are pleasant enough, but Stewart delivers this oddly goofy vocal towards the track’s closing stages that sound horribly out of place.
While the record takes it time to grow into itself, the ideas and songwriting pick up with the title track that is built upon a densely packed mix. Over this, the words ‘OH NO’ are shyly repeated. Yet, just this two-word phrase, upon this repetition, is filled with enough emotion and panic that the track remains compelling throughout. This leads into ‘Rumpus Room,’ a song during which Stewart sounds at his most urgent, singing and speaking over frantic percussion and sharply recorded guitars, all interspersed within an instrumental that would be at home on a soundscape project. Following this, Angelo Seo handles most of the vocals on ‘fuzz gong,’ where vocal phrases are pulled apart, unexpectedly manipulated and staggered within a brooding instrumental. Seo’s vocals sound genuinely frightening at times and the timbres of her voice provides a well thought through contrast to Stewart’s more deranged vocal manipulations.
The record does allow room for some more melancholic writing, as heard on ‘I Dream of Someone Else Entirely,’ with Owen Pallett providing these clean vocals that are constantly at odds with Stewart’s jagged delivery. Instrumentally, there is the introduction of plucked strings that sound like something Joanna Newsom would arrange. ‘It Bothers Me All the Time’ is equally sad in delivery, but twice breaks into a wall of near total noise. The sonic qualities of the track mirror whatever it is that Stewart find to be bothering him. Alongside Jonathon Meiburg, the two vocalists sound like they are constantly pushing irritants to the backs of their minds, yet they cannot fully remove the thoughts from their heads. This is the Xiu Xiu from Girl with Basket of Fruit and is one of the record’s darkest moments. The Chelsea Wolfe feature on ‘One Hundred Years’ is another highlight of this record, in part due to Seo’s crashing production with every single note more dissonant than the last. Wolfe and Stewart close the track by screaming the song’s title, emanating this sense of urgency to proceedings. A similar occurrence can be heard on ‘A Classic Screw.’ The song is another soundscape inspired track and abundant in vocal ferocity, but with the overall dissonance turned down slightly.
What is achieved on ‘OH NO’ is not as harrowing or distressing as some Xiu Xiu records. In fact, there are oddly cathartic elements to this album that are seldom on albums like Forget or Dear God, I Hate Myself. The substitute for this is not a lack of emotion, or a lack of smart compositional ideas. OH NO is a less consistent record but Stewart and Seo are still able to come through with a substantial tracklist with cohesively chosen guests and immense instrumental precision. When given the opportunity, this record blossoms but requires a few listens, in consideration of the slightly weaker opening leg of the record. For the most part, Xiu Xiu have done it again.
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