Hope you know how to swim, for the masterminds behind Xiu Xiu and Shearwater are here to take you on a foreboding journey through the dangers of the deep ocean.
If the February release of Xiu Xiu’s Dear God, I Hate Myself wasn’t enough to satiate your urges for Jamie Stewart’s overwrought melodrama this year, don’t fret: he worked on a side project. Blue Water White Death is a collaboration between Stewart and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg of Texas group Shearwater. With no material written beforehand, the two entered a studio for a week and crafted this compact eight-song album that embodies the foreboding conveyed by the project title.
For a record created and completed in a week, Blue Water White Death hangs together quite well as a potently evocative work. Unlike weaker collaborative musical efforts between two very distinct artists (Xiu Xiu is dense and fractured with a relentless self-mocking streak, while Shearwater’s chamber-folk melodies are spacious and soul-stirring), Blue Water White Death brings both musicians’ distinctive elements to the party in a complementary fashion. Stewart shows no signs of getting over himself, quiveringly sputtering out gloomy lyrics in a manner that often veers on the comical, while Meiburg recontextualizes the airy strains of Shearwater’s music against Stewart’s contributions to create something unsettling.
As indicated by the title of the project, Blue Water White Death is an album immersed in the vast, scary realms of the deep ocean. The music is ominous, conjuring the image of a frightened Stewart adrift in a nightmarish sea of sound. It’s a dramatically sensual record in the way it recalls oceanic swells and rumblings with wave-like melodies, stray background echoes, and errant violently-struck strings -- it’s Dirty Three with lyrics for the maudlin set, essentially. “Song for the Greater Jihad” demands attention with its introductory strum und twangs before giving way to lilting Irish-inflected balladry. Similarly, “The End of Sex”, opens with the massive twang of a violently-plucked low string before giving way to pastoral folk. “Death for Christmas” finds a vulnerable Stewart delicately whispering over gently-plucked acoustic guitar, as more jarring sonic elements threaten to burst through. In spite of its softer moments, the sudden instrumental eruptions and desolate atmosphere make the album a terrifying nighttime listen.
As is common with projects involving Jamie Stewart, the power of Blue Water White Death is occasionally undercut by the involved parties’ sense of humor. For example, the surging end of the album’s final song (rendered even more arresting by the inclusion of short, asthmatic breaths) is deflated if you suddenly remember that the cut is titled “Rendering the Juggalos” (on the other hand, we now have a winner in the “Best Song Title of 2010” category). In general, though, Stewart and Meiburg throw themselves into the maelstrom without any accompanying silliness. In fact, here Stewart’s standard histrionics as a performer work as he inhabits a heightened reality that’s the aural equivalent of German Expressionism, all skewed scenery and mental anxieties recast as whole environments.
What’s more of a hindrance to the album is the feeling that the pair could have taken a little more time to tighten the arrangements. Songs often peter out just as they get going, and taken as a whole the sprawling sonic submersion feels formless, meaning there’s no really suitable entry point for listeners on the record. Surely the spontaneity surrounding the creation of the album was a key component in its realization, but a little distance to judge where to tighten or expand upon ideas would have made for a stronger result.
Faults aside, Blue Water White Death is a lonely, harrowing world one can lose themselves in -- even if it’s not one they’d necessarily want to be in. Put on the headphones and turn off the lights, and you’ll quickly forget that this is an album that starts with a song called “This is the Scrunchyface of my Dreams”.