February 6, 2012

Album Review: Xiu Xiu's Always

Jamie Stewart and Xiu Xiu have been a cornerstone in deconstructing pop music in really effed up ways for an entire decade now. The project's unorthodox thirst for tunefulness trapped inside clunky noise and toppled by Stewart's tongue-in-cheek-but-more-often-disturbing wordplay contribute to the band's constant evolution despite a revolving door of co-conspirators and label hopping. What originally began as a fractured journey into Stewart's damaged psyche however has become increasingly more comfortable with the notion of accessibility in latter-day outputs, beginning with 2008's Women As Lovers and making the full transition on 2010's Dear God, I Hate Myself. On their 8th studio LP and Polyvinyl debut Always, Stewart and Xiu Xiu (now Angela Seo with new recruits Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls and the Dead Science's Sam Mickens) amass the sum of all parts with their most cohesive and well-rounded release of the band's career by catering to all extremes.

On his recent cover of Rihanna's "Only Girl (In the World)," Jamie Stewart successfully demonstrated how he dismantles a perfect pop song and transform its context entirely into something beautifully ugly. The spin on the radio hit comes with an underlying irony, but on Always, Stewart allows Xiu Xiu to embrace hooks and choruses with unabashed sincerity. Morbid synth textures hemorrhage throughout the LP, beginning with the terrific opening tri-fecta of "Hi"'s disco-tinge or "Joey's Song" and "Beauty Towne"'s airy electronica. Further evidence that Stewart is the indie world's modern day equivalent of Trent Reznor can be heard in "Gul Mudin" and "Born to Suffer" while Carla Bozulich's guest vocals on "Smear the Queen" offers the first serious contender for collaboration of the year. Make no mistake about it, though -- Despite the overall upbeat feel, Stewart's words remain firmly planted in self-loathing and despair to juxtapose the sprite electronic glow.

Always isn't just Xiu Xiu OD'ing on pop confections either as moments of noise and silence create shock-and-awe discomfort in a fashion similar to Stewart's early-era musical fetes ("Sad Pony Guerilla Girl," "I Broke Up," "Support Our Troops.) "I Luv Abortion" -- an eye-raising song title within itself -- is abrasive, loud and features the manic mastermind's schizophrenic outbursts over a front of ear-scathing electronic effects while "Black Drum Machine" is an unsettling bare bones narrative on incest that ends with Stewart repeatedly quivering an apology until all sound goes null -- A fitting end to an album that, alongside huge strides in the band's handling of pop sensibilities, surgically enhances Xiu Xiu's best assets from the last 10 years. Jamie Stewart's world may not one which many of us can relate to (or would like to admit exists for that matter,) so it's a triumph that he and Xiu Xiu have found a way to overcome these topical language barriers for both veteran listeners and curious newcomers in a manner each can comprehend.

Xiu Xiu's Always will be released March 6, 2012 on Polyvinyl Records.

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