Album Review: Xiu Xiu – ‘Oh No’

Known for making beautiful music for hard times, Californian experimentalists Xiu Xiu have excelled themselves once more on striking new record Oh No. Overflowing with sonic magnitude and featuring alliances with stalwarts of the indie scene, Owen White explores where the project fits in the duo’s prodigious career.

Xiu Xiu have been on a truly strange musical trajectory over the last few years. I mean, arguably they’ve been on one for the entirety of their career, however recent years have seen something of a renaissance period for the band, particularly baffling for a group now hurtling into the third decade of their storied career. After their initial run of classic records in the early-2000’s during which albums like Fabulous Muscles and A Promise pushed the envelope for experimental indie so far through the letterbox, they forced the whole door in, the band seemed at a bit of a loss for direction. Those albums pushed the boundaries in the independent scene with their supremely challenging and often taboo subject matters, extreme sonics that extrapolated the sounds of classic experimental music groups from Suicide to Coil to fresh new extremes, and perhaps most impressively with the degree of accessibility (and even sometimes catchiness) they were able to deliver these elements with.

After their initial creative streak, it’s pretty undeniable that Xiu Xiu floundered a little artistically with a series of records that walked a disappointing line between breezily pleasant (La Forêt) and pleasantly bland (particularly impressive for an album named Dear God I Hate Myself). This culminated with Angel Guts: Red Classroom in 2014, an album that took Xiu Xiu’s most abrasive impulses and inaccessible stylistic leanings and turned it all up to eleven. The result was the bands most sonically striking and thematically deranged album in years and one that would act as something of an artistic detox, with the band sounding like they were having fun making their music for the first time in years (as gloriously unfun as it often was to listen to). Sadly, that record was slightly less than the sum of its parts coming across oddly low stakes and lacking the impact of their early work. The band would successfully capitalize on this newfound creative momentum however on their next major project, a divine reimagining of Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch’s already perfect Twin Peaks Soundtrack. A reimagining that kept the originals rich sense of mystery and atmosphere and imbued it with the band’s grimmer sensibilities to chilling effect.

‘It’s sonically far wilder and darker than Angel Guts, featuring some of the band’s most traumatic and upsetting music to date.’

Xiu Xiu’s next album of original material, Forget, was their best in over a decade. By far the most striking and successful of Xiu Xiu’s attempts to merge their intrinsic uncanniness and surprising pop sensibilities since Fabulous Muscles, it’s a record that’s just as stunningly catchy as it is oddly unsettling. Following that up the band dropped Girl with Basket of Fruit, their most challenging album to date. It’s sonically far wilder and darker than even Angel Guts, featuring some of the band’s most traumatic and upsetting music to date both thematically and musically. It also benefits from a uniquely streamlined sound that leans heavily on repetition and centers rhythm in a way the band had never before attempted, going as far as to take some pointers from dance music. That brings us to this year’s Oh No. Yet another in their recent string of more conceptual Xiu Xiu records, this album sees the band’s singer and frontman Jamie Stewart collaborate on a number of surprisingly nuanced and elegant duets with some of his friends and underground contemporaries.

The collaborations here are impressively varied and almost always inspired. From indie stalwarts like Sharon Van Etten and Liz Harris (aka Grouper) to fellow icons of extreme music over the past couple of decades like Liars’s Angus Andrew and Chelsea Wolfe, the band’s immaculate taste is undeniable. Each guest provides a thrilling and completely appropriate performance, the kind that can only be extracted through kindred creative spirit working in conjunction with genuine friendship. Chelsea Wolfe howls and caterwauls over an apocalyptic take on the Cure classic One Hundred Years, providing enough guttural catharsis and genuine distress to go toe to toe with Stewarts’ own legendary howling and caterwauling. Angus Andrew provides a dejected and affectingly grim counterpoint to Stewart’s fire and brimstone sermon on the freakish, hilarious, and shockingly catchy Rumpus Room.

The band perfectly utilise each skill they’ve developed and incorporated over their impressive career from the mind-melting electronics to the mutant vocals that blur the line between voice and instrument, from the atmospheric minimalism of their Twin Peaks cover record to the insane drum programming of Girl with Basket of Fruit. Then they imbue it all with the songwriting tightness and pop sensibilities they’ve spent their entire career honing. There are some legitimately flooring choruses on this album, whether it’s the ethereal drama of The Grifters featuring conceptual folk/country artist Haley Fohr or the sublime and shockingly uplifting earworm of A Bottle of Rum featuring Liz Harris which slathers itself in chirping bells and chiming acoustic guitars that build to something as close to euphoric as Xiu Xiu are comfortable getting. Elsewhere the band incorporate the idiosyncrasy they initially became known for but in controlled quantities; it can be heard in the baffling instrumental pallet of albums experimental synth folk title track that shouldn’t be able to hold together half as well as it does and, in the chilling, legitimately shocking reveries of electronic noise on It Bothers Me All the Time.

You’ve probably noticed this review is a little (read: insanely) top-heavy with context. This is because the artistic trajectory that led to this record is sadly far more interesting to discuss than the record itself. This is of course is not a point against the album, some records are unfortunately just not all that enthusing to talk about. It’s a lovely record and yet another late-career success for the group but it’s also in essence just that: a lovely record. It’s fifteen duets that are predominantly gorgeous and are at times legitimately sublime and brilliantly incorporate the talents and quirks of each of the featured artists into Xiu Xiu’s signature experimental sound while still featuring the dazzling emotional and sonic intensity and incredible variety you’d expect from a great Xiu Xiu album.

‘If you’ve ever enjoyed Xiu Xiu’s music in the past... then I simply cannot recommend this album enough.’

I could sit here and break the album down track by track but frankly, I think that’d be boring for all involved as it’d basically amount to me saying this is a really nice song over and over. The tracks complement each other well and function excellently on an individual basis but altogether it doesn’t really amount to much more than a great batch of tracks. Not that it has to though, if you’ve ever enjoyed Xiu Xiu’s music in the past or the music of any of the artists featured on the record, or if an album of delicate, adventurous, and occasionally slightly abrasive indie-pop duets sound appealing to you then I simply cannot recommend this album enough. Simply a great batch of songs.

Written by: Owen White

Edited by: Alex Duke

Featured and in-article image courtesy of Xiu Xiu via Facebook.