Written by Jeremy Ryan.
When thinking about challenging bands like Xiu Xiu (MySpace), the words “stable” or “consistent” do not spring to mind. They are not supposed to release a gaggle of jaw-dropping, eerie records as frequently and reliably as they do (four records since 2004). After hearing 2004’s borderline masterpiece Fabulous Muscles, I gave it about a six-week limit until primary songwriter, Jamie Stewart, flipped out, renounced music, and fled to Asia for some good old overindulgent artist soul searching. Either that or he’d ended up trying to wriggle his way out of a straight jacket in a padded room.
That being said, I have to say, given the topics that Xiu Xiu records tend to examine, I do not know if I would necessarily blame him. Thank God that has not happened. Hell, I thought that this brand of reflective, self-examining and deeply affecting lyrics were something that existed only in hidden diaries, and not the kind with the cheap-ass locks that are easy to pop open (not that I would know). But after repeated listens, the word that comes to mind when describing this record is, wow. With the release of The Air Force, Xiu Xiu prove itself a band willing to move in a melodic and increasingly accessible direction, all the while holding onto the aspects that make their albums so damn interesting and unique.
Melody and structure aside, this is still a record that will force some awkward winces. However, despite the uncomfortable content, you will find yourself hanging on every word that Stewart delivers in his extremely affected tone. It is undeniable that Stewart has a knack for writing songs with multiple underlying melodies, as brief tidbits of this album will get stuck in the listeners head, likely bouncing around for days, a testament to Stewart’s capable handle on melodic musicianship and song crafting. Many songs maintain a regular structure, as the percussive elements of the music becoming increasingly pronounced. Most tracks then employ a paranoid electronic tone as the songs curve their way toward their anxiously brilliant and invitingly unbalanced conclusion.
The first song on the album, “Buzz Saw”, sets the tone for the record — melodic tinkling on a piano with a rambunctious snare drum and an increasingly atonal electronic smattering of notes. The music mirrors the lyrics, venturing on the uncomfortable, but returning to the familiar, albeit in an unconventional manner. The next track, “Boy Soprano”, provides a quick payoff, employing the type of distorted guitar line and pulsating electronic beat that seems to inevitably stay in the listeners head for days to come. Several tracks on The Air Force address the same type of awkward longing, cold rejection, tragic suicide, and frank violence that we have come to expect from Xiu Xiu. For example, the highpoint of the album, “Bishop, Ca,” begins as a sparse keyboard line while Stewart addresses incest and sexual abuse, both topics not commonly examined in the forum of indie rock, perhaps finding a more comfortable home on a spoken word album. The track then takes off, blossoming into a creepy, ritualistic style chant over glitchy, yet rhythmic electronics.
Examples of Xiu Xiu’s continuing evolution as a band are prominent throughout this album. Even songs that begin very conventionally, such as “Watermelon Vs. The Pineapple”, and “Save Me, Save Me”, retain the characteristics of a conventional indie rock song. However, they posses a certain uncomfortable edge that is unique to Xiu Xiu, leaving the listener engaged, though mildly uncomfortable. Xiu Xiu also doesn’t hesitate to wander WAY off the beaten path, as is evident listening to the track “Wig Master”. The song, if you could even call it that, has an extremely unsettling quality to it (lyrics like loneliness isn’t being alone, it’s when someone loves you and you don’t have it in you to love them back). That being said, “Wig Master” inhabits the same realm as past Jamie Stewart freak-outs like Fabulous Muscles song “Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!).”
The more you hear this album, the more its eccentricities come together to create a beautiful and powerful record. Due to the shear originality of this band, I will take a Xiu Xiu album over 95 percent of current releases. After all, where is the reward, and for that matter the staying power, when artists go the safe route and don’t challenge the listener? If you shy away from artists that do not spoon feed the listener with pop simplicity, this may not be the album or band for you. But personally speaking, this album is rewarding in a different way every listen; a quality that is making Xiu Xiu an increasingly reliable and prolific band that you can trust for innovation, as well as rely on for a large dose of realism and artistic integrity. You get the feeling that Stewart doesn’t make music specifically targeted for the listener, he makes music because he would go crazy if he didn’t.
This review was originally published November 3, 2006 on the old version of FensePost.
1. Buzz Saw
2. Boy Soprano
3. Hello From Eau Claire
4. Vulture Piano
5. PJ In The Streets…
6. Bishop, CA
7. Saint Pedro Glue Stick
8. The Pineapple Vs. The Watermelon
9. Save Me, Save Me
10. The Fox & The Rabbit
11. Wig Master