[6 February 2014]
Xiu Xiu take a path many other bands have taken with Angel Guts, Red Classroom. By using only the most primitive instruments, the classic “strip the sound down to reveal the core” motif is on full display here. It would be a better choice for just about any other band. With Xiu Xiu, their music is stripped down to the core by definition. On this album this method just makes things sound at best, incomprehensible and bizarre for the sake of being bizarre, and at worst, just plain bad.
What’s surprising is that this all comes after an opening that fits this band’s ethos perfectly. “Angel Guts:” is guitar and synth distorted beyond recognition set against a backdrop that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Silent Hill video game. Their signature move has always been taking indie rock & pop to dark places and making the listener revel in the uncomfortable atmosphere, whether they want to or not. First full track “Archie’s Fades” reveals at once all that is good and all that is wrong with this album. Musically, it sounds like classic downcast Xiu Xiu, with just a touch of Kid A era Radiohead atmospherics coloring the track. “Stupid in the Dark” continues to mine a very Kid A- era Radiohead-aping vibe, even at times veering off into Aphex Twin territory. Things start to sound promising, at least in the beginning.
All too quickly though, this album starts to collapse under its own weight with “Lawrence Liquors” and “Black Dick”. Vocally, these two continue on using a vocal persona that is over-used to the point of making the album almost un-listenable. Jamie Stewart’s vocals on these tracks are despondent, often toneless, and drenched in raw ache and hurt. Oftentimes they come across like an even more wounded version of Jesus in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Specifically, as the crucifixion ends, Jesus is heard to say “It is finished,” and as he does the agony and pain are palpable, even if the listener is only hearing it on a CD of the original cast album.
Back to the subject at hand, Stewart takes this style of singing and just drives it into the ground. There is just too much of it to take in when repeated so often over an entire album. There is a merciful respite from this in the form of “Adult Friends”. The squealing sound effects sprinkled all over the track sometimes make it equally as grating, but the vocal turns that again remind the listener of an even more downtrodden Morrissey more than make up for this shortcoming. Stewart manages to further remedy the effects of this vocal-style over-use in “Bitter Melon”. The heavily wounded and tortured tone is still there, but the effect is much more evenly balanced here, between the wounded soul who wants to say something to the world, looking for help, and the wounded soul who just wants to spew acid across the room to all who would listen.
Jamie Stewart and the rest of the continuously rotating cast of characters that make up Xiu Xiu have done great works in the past. This album seems determined to take all the good things Stewart and co. are capable of and tossing them right out the window. Once again, low-tech and stripped-down sounds can yield beauty. In the hands of this band, they yield an album trying to be difficult for difficulty’s sake, an album likely to make even the most die-hard Xiu Xiu supporters scratch their heads wonder “What were they thinking?”