A Note From The Author: Xiu Xiu often implore very intense, aurally distressing, and often uncomfortable sounds and subject matters into their music. This record is more accessible, which will be described below, and has distinctly less of these, but I feel it important to at least mention that some may find this content disturbing, uncomfortable, or even offensive at certain points. You may, additionally, come across them in deeper listening on your own time. They are, however, utilized in an artistic, stylized and supportive fashion towards womxn, non-white individuals, individuals of varing sexuality and gender, and their stories, and the group has been more than vocal about this fact.
I’m ecstatic that I finally get to discuss Xiu Xiu. One of the most aurally intriguing, sonically versed, and deeply entrancing groups out there, Jamie Stewart and company have explored seemingly everything under the ‘experimental rock’ tag, be it their earlier excursions in eclectic synth-punk on releases like Knife Play (2002) or A Promise (2003), bat-shit insane post-industrial records like Angel Guts: Red Classroom (2014) or Girl with Basket of Fruit (2019), or noisy art pop on full-lengths like Fabulous Muscles (2004), Forget (2017) and this one. While being familiar with most of the group’s more acclaimed and eclectic catalog, I’ve dipped my feet into nearly all 11 studio records the band had produced, in addition to their extensive experimental back catalog (Nina, MERZXIU, and Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, among others) and have to come to a general understanding of the band’s sound and aesthetic (needless to say, I love this group).
With subject matter pertaining mostly to female struggle, stories of women in strife, and troubled relationships, the message of the group is very clear. Topics range from troubling words spoken from Stewart‘s upstairs neighbors (“Sad Pony Guerilla Girl,” A Promise) to gritty historical lynching stories (“Mary Turner Mary Turner,” Girl with Basket of Fruit) to even other subjects like atrocities committed in the Middle East (“Support Our Troops, Oh (Black Angels, Oh),” Fabulous Muscles), and Stewart has spoken at length regarding his lyricism, so I implore the reader to listen to and read the many interviews with the prolific artist. The rabbit hole may seem deep, and it justifiably is for the group, as with many line-up and stylistic changes, Xiu Xiu has existed as an entity outside of any single genre tag, one centered around anguish, sorrow and strife. This holds even truer with OH NO, the group’s twelfth, and most recent, full-length record.
With only one remaining member at his side, long-time collaborator Angela Seo, the duo embark on a set of 15 duets, in which the entity of Xiu Xiu collaborates with another artist one ever track here. Seemingly very reminiscent of the Disco4 :: Part I compilation by Health (in which Xiu Xiu was featured on the “Delicious Ape” track), OH NO is very different record than previous by Stewart and Seo, as the emphasis on spaciousness and collaboration are at the hearts of each one of these tracks. While the beautifully woven guitar lines, dizzying electronic and percussive elements, and Stewart‘s trademark erratic vocal style (he sounds like he is struggling for breath with every line he sings, in the best way possible) are all more than present, each of the mixes feels extremely open with room for the instruments to really pop amidst the flurry of instrumentation.
The singles are among the best examples of this, although both are quite different than the other. “A Bottle of Rum (ft. Liz Harris)” is a beautifully noisy collaboration with the woman behind ambient dream pop tour de force Grouper, where the two ethereally serenade one another throughout the verse, and harmonize on the chorus. The beat is as harsh as any Xiu Xiu beat should be, but there is a sheen of tropical nostalgia and forgotten summer nights that completely engulfs this track. Incredibly pleasing, this song often finds itself being played on repeat once I reach it on the record, and I will continue to do this going forward. I can say the same about “Rumpus Room (ft. Liars),” which shows Angus Andrew, vocalist and guitarist of that experimental rock project join Stewart in a bouncy, brash and somewhat uncomfortable take on the traditional Xiu Xiu sound. Driven heavily by the percussion, “Rumpus Room” one of the many songs on OH NO that have a wonderful pace to them, continually adding new instrumentation and wonky vocal delivery to truly shine. Both of these cuts also have music videos associated with them, and I believe they provide a lot of necessary context to what the tracks are talking about.
Breaking away from these, the rest of the tracks are each extremely interesting and more than unique comparatively to the rest on display. “Sad Mezcalita (ft. Sharon Van Etten)” shows the singer/songwriter pair quietly croon over fluttery synth leads and intense ambience, as a guitar-driven lead line pushes the song through its contextualization of Xiu Xiu‘s older work, with direct callbacks to older cuts from A Promise, as well as references to upcoming cuts on this record. As one of the strongest openers the group has offered, this track really sets the tone as something beautiful, out-of-the-ordinary and completely sui generis. This blend of harsh aesthetics with dream and art pop sensibilities is truly what makes this version of the group stand out from their contemporaries.
I could go in depth to most of these cuts, but that would lend itself to a much lengthier review than I have the need to write. So here, I will stick to the hits. “The Grifters (ft. Haley Fohr)” and “Fuzz Gong Fight (ft. Angela Seo)” are two more highlights in the first half of the tracklist, both of which draw on the tones of many Xiu Xiu tracks before them. “The Grifters (ft. Haley Fohr)” reminds me greatly of the older acoustic-driven cuts like “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl,” but this one swells in the chorus, with both parties boasting massive operatic delivery and backing string instrumentation. The bridge on this one is short but powerful, launching us back into the now dense chorus, which has added vibraphone, a marching snare, chimes and so much more to round off the cut. “Fuzz Gong Fight (ft. Angela Seo)” is both a feature and not, as Seo is more prominent on this track than she maybe has ever been on one of this group’s cuts. Seo’s haunting spoken delivery during most of the track is accompanied by plunking electronic flourishes and a low-mixed organ to create a really atmospheric and eerie vibe. Stewart explodes into the chorus with full instrumentation, and a considerable uptick in dynamics to boot. The lyrics here are also pretty visceral, and wrap up the cut with a classic Xiu Xiu bow spattered with blood and spit.
The tracklist takes somewhat of a dip in the latter half, with “Saint Dymphna (ft. Twin Shadow)” and “Knock Out (ft. Alice Bag),” both of which are good tracks, but fail to stand out amongst the other cuts within the record, especially due to the fact that these tracks usually play it relatively safe in terms of instrumental and sonic variability. This isn’t to say there aren’t gems to find here, however. “I Dream of Someone Else Entirely (ft. Owen Pallett)” and “It Bothers Me All The Time (ft. Shearwater)” are both really roomy cuts, with sparse instrumentation leaving room for incredibly passionate vocal performances from all members involved. The latter is certainly more eclectic however, with multiple flourishes of noise and electronics, and a few moments of total hysteria in the music. Another small criticism I can place is on the final cut, “ANTS (ft. Valerie Diaz),” and finding very little information on this 15-second outro, I can’t seem to find it’s purpose. To give it some credit however, you will definitely remember the outro from the moment you hear it.
Jamie Stewart, and Xiu Xiu as a whole, is incredibly showy, and it has to be. With so many music influences, interpretations and previous experiences (and on OH NO, features), this group continues to push the boundaries of experimental music on this release, but in a more accessible way then ever before. While it may take a bit to get used to some of the more abrasive sounds Stewart and Seo create on this record, the basis of this record is based in indie-pop songwriting that most people can enjoy. Each song here is as painful as the artist gets, but with a beautiful and often heartwarming guise over the entire project, and while I only touched upon a few tracks, the rest are in the same wheelhouse as those discussed. Give this a chance, and jump into one of my favorite outlandish beasts with open arms and a curious mind.
Final Rating: Je t’aime Xiu Xiu OH!
Favorite Tracks: “The Grifters (ft. Haley Fohr),” “A Bottle of Rum (ft. Liz Harris),” “Sad Mezcalita (ft. Sharon Van Etten)”
FFO: Liars, Circut des Yeux, Whitehouse
You can listen to OH NO, out now on all major streaming services via Polyvinyl Record Co.!