Xiu Xiu is one of those great anomalies in contemporary music. It’s rare that you see a band that straddles the line between the Pop and the Avant-Garde to the degree that they do, with albums such as Dear God I Hate Myself, and Always sitting as close to the former side of the gradient, and Angel Guts: Red Classroom, and their (up until now) most recent effort, Girl With Basket Of Fruit sitting on the other. They’ve covered a lot of ground over the years, seemingly everything from sensitive Smiths-esque Indie Pop anthems to abrasive Industrial soundscapes, and even quite, vaguely Folksy acoustic music too. And the most remarkable thing about all of these stylistic shifts they’ve made back and forth over the past few decades is that they still fundamentally sound like Xiu Xiu at the end of the day. Everything they have done undeniably has their DNA printed onto it, and cannot be mistaken for any other artist.
And this latest album, OH NO, is no exception. Keeping in Xiu Xiu fashion of shaking things up every few albums, this record is something of a departure from the abrasive, and sometimes abstract nature of Girl With Basket Of Fruit and offers something more on the mellower side of the band. That said, however, the main attraction this time around is in the concept. OH NO is very explicitly an album of duets between the band and various friends, which is something the band has never really done before up until this point. Sure Women As Lovers has a cover of Under Pressure, which features Swans frontman Michael Gira, but to my knowledge, this is the only time the band has indulged in this kind of thing, and this is certainly the first time Xiu Xiu have made an album where every song features a guest vocalist. And there’s a lot of incredible names here to boot, including Greg Saunier of Deerhoof fame (someone who has notably collaborated with Xiu Xiu many times in the past), Chelsea Wolfe, and Liz Harris (better known as Grouper, and features on the lead single ‘A Bottle Of Rum’), to name some of the more prominent ones. There’s even a duet with longtime bandmate Angela Seo on here as well, and whilst vocals aren’t something alien to her having provided some here and there on previous albums, it seems that crediting her as a feature highlights that she adopts a much larger, more important this time around in regards to her voice, and has gone from merely backing a song to taking the lead.
As said above this is a much more mellow affair for Xiu Xiu, perhaps the most consistently mellow album they’ve done for quite some time, if we were to make another gradient with mellow on one side and abrasive on the other, then this would sit just left of A Promise, and to the right of La Forêt. It’s undoubtedly a far more subtle affair, one in which the band exercises a lot more restraint when it comes to their more experimental tendencies. But that doesn’t mean that Jamie and Co. have ditched them entirely, as they weave those elements in and out of songs, and these moments jump out at the listener and immediately demand their attention. They’re perfectly timed at points when the quieter segments might otherwise outstay their welcome and are guaranteed to keep people engaged with the music. Not only that, but they draw upon a wide range of sounds, from synthesisers, to banjos, to gongs, all processed in a variety of different ways and provide a much needed variety to an album where a lot of the songs follow a similar structure and formula.
This leads us to one of the highlights of this record, which is a cover of One Hundred Years by The Cure. This comes hot off the heels of another highlight of the album ‘I Dream Of Someone Else Entirely’, which is perhaps the most dreamy and euphoric song on the album. By the time you get to this song you’ve become accustomed to the overall sound and vibe the album is trying to convey, and as soon as it ends the band rips the rug out from underneath you to provide this remarkably faithful cover and showcases just how much Jamie is indebted to the Post-Punk and Gothic Rock sounds of the 80s. It is in of itself a great moment, usually when a band puts a cover song on an album of original material it usually sticks out like a sore thumb, but Xiu Xiu have not only worked it into album seamlessly, but they put it at the best possible point the track sequence, it could not be a more perfect moment. ‘Rumpus Room’ also jumps out with its dancier beats, the spoken word of ‘Fuzz Gong’ is a nice touch as well. With ‘Knock Out’ and ‘A Bottle Of Rum’ being the closest things the album has to a collection of radio Pop anthems with (although still presented in typical Xiu Xiu fashion).
Overall this is yet another solid attempt from Xiu Xiu. Long time fans will feel right at home, perhaps welcoming the contrast this album has with its predecessor Girl With Basket Of Fruit whilst retaining the more experimental elements that they’ve come to know and love, and I wager that this could be a great entry point for new time listeners as well due to it’s the more subtle and restrained approach. It will be a welcome addition to any music lover’s collection.
Nathan Alexander. (Ravetank)
OH NO is out now through Polyvinyl Records. / PRC426CD / PRC426LP
For more info, visit http://www.xiuxiu.org/