October 5, 2006

Xiu Xiu Overhauls Pop

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Xiu Xiu has been moving fast lately. In the last two years, following the release of Fabulous Muscles, they have released a full-length album, a covers EP, a live album and another EP before putting out The Air Force, all while touring. In the process, Stewart’s ability to fictionalize and beautify his experience has matured tremendously. But when you are that relentlessly productive, it is difficult to abstract away from your art. He is still running over the same themes, very specific kinds of alienation spurned by politics, family, and sex, and his newest album The Air Force seems to have complexified Fabulous Muscles without necessarily expanding on it, if that’s fair to say.
The percussion is fantastic though, comparable to Depeche Mode’s mid-eighties experimentation with atonal machine clanging and bicycle spokes. Like those efforts, Xiu Xiu takes familiar sounds and turns them foreign, even terrifying. A crying baby is played in reverse so that each sob slowly accelerates into an unfamiliar hiccup of sound. The delineating lines between natural and synthesized sounds are shifting constantly, so that sounds that you can usually distinguish without a problem become ambiguous. Trilling birdsongs and maybe flutes are synthesized to evoke the blare of a modem or a panicking alarm clock.
All of this experimentation remains nuanced, on most of the cuts, caged within traditional song structures. My favorite moments come when the order of the music actually breaks down and the backing elements bottleneck into a kind of jam of noise, and those moments are few and far between. Stewart’s voice spikes into an electronic squeal in the last seconds of “Vulture Piano” and the elements of the song crumble together into a glorious mash. There is also true genius in the song “Bishop, CA,” an anti-war song that suddenly crescendos into 1812 Overture style instrumental reproduction of a battle, while the high strings of a war movie’s climax sing over them. There’s no right way to explain it, but the song is a million miles away from typical protest music clichés.
Even the vocals are scrubbed away at the edges, although they mostly float above the noise. On first listen, I felt like the strength of this album was in the play between Stewart’s voice, which is beautiful and accessible, and the discordant circumstances of it. All these stories, and the sound, express innocence thrown into a crashing, sickening maze. The effect works aesthetically and crushes the mind. Lyrically, Stewart synchronizes beauty and pain, a poetic assembly of disaster.
This album is like a deeply dysfunctional family’s Christmas portrait. Everyone’s in their proper place, all the elements are there. But a vast darkness lurks in the picture, invisible in plain view. It’s something about the frozen smiles, the images of togetherness, dad’s hand resting around mom’s waist – it’s all such obvious trompe l’oeil.
The gentleness of The Air Force, its beautifully voiced horror stories and twisted choruses, the twinkling chimes overwhelmed by harsh electronics and drums, somehow remain constrained, and in their constraint create a sense of unease and irreplaceable damage. Good luck with it.