Album Review: Xiu Xiu – OH NO

[Polyvinyl; 2021]

It’s hard to find a historical equivalent to Xiu Xiu. Spanning a 20 year career, Jamie Stewart’s always-shifting avant garde pop project has managed to evade classification, overcome significant roadblocks and spawned dozens of imitators. At this point, the sole reference that might manage to encapsulate what Xiu Xiu “means” could be found in San Francisco’s equally bizarre avant rockers The Residents. Like Xiu Xiu, the obscure foursome (later presumably twosome) managed to make a career of hideously beautiful and often dissonant or noisy tunes – somewhere between a self-conscious parody of pop and willingly grotesque opera, with a willingness to confront the darker reaches of American’s subconscious landscapes of self-doubt and repression. And like Stewart, Hardy Fox (the presumed main composer of The Residents) wrote from a genuinely queer perspective, as documented in his pseudo-autobiography THIS under the nom de plume Charles Bobuck.

But both groups diverge in one aspect – The Residents have embraced collaboration as a key aspect of their work, bringing in Lene Lovich, Andy Partridge, David Byrne, Fred Frith and Snakefinger. These collaborations weren’t just experiments or one-offs, but can be understood as the group consciously disrupting the often mythologized sacred unity of rock formations, especially considering the uniquely anonymous status of their releases and performances. In contrast to that, Stewart has always blossomed in an environment of anxious isolation. While the key unit of his group has shifted over the years – from the early years with Caralee McElroy to the current dip with Angela Seo – and even included occasional duets (people seem to forget his “Under Pressure” with Michael Gira) and collaborative projects, those almost exclusively felt like detours rather than organic experiences from within the band’s dynamic. But, given that Xiu Xiu has by now also released a swath of odd experimental works, ranging from covers projects to field recordings of bird sounds and vibrator ambient, the line between what is and isn’t organic in Stewart’s discography has become impossible to define.

So it’s intriguing that OH NO – likely Xiu Xiu’s 15th album – is all made up of collaborations, mostly with long time friends. It’s probably also the band’s most approachable album, with Stewart’s usually panic-riddled compositions bowing down to the minimalism, majesty or mania of the people he shares credits with. It’s also, as can be expected, a bit of a mixed bag, but for the most part surprisingly unified in its aesthetics, which – ironically – feel very much like Xiu Xiu’s early work transported to larger canvases.

Take “Knock Out”, which features Alice Bag of the LA Punk legends Bags: stylistically, the melancholic ballad could have featured on 2003’s A Promise or 2005’s La Forêt, but with Bag’s attitude and occasional electronic guitar interplay, the song feels much friendlier and optimistic than the early era allowed. “Sad Mezcalita” features Sharon Van Etten delivering a threatening, hushed vocal performance in stark contrast to Stewart’s pained voice, with both finally colliding in the lamenting chorus – almost a dream pop track of whispered guitars and striking ambience. “A Bottle of Rum”, which features Liz Harris (Grouper), is a breathy guitar track, which almost sounds like a reverb-drenched remix of a Sheryl Crow song, yet retains Xiu Xiu’s signature punchy drums and anxious tone. The weird orchestral gloom of “I Cannot Resist” with Deb Demure feels unlike anything her band Drab Majesty have produced so far, finding beautiful texture the likes of La Forêt‘s “Dangerous You Shouldn’t Be Here”. OH NO‘s title track, a post-industrial nursery rhyme, integrates Susanne Sachsse’s German spoken-word part to great effect.

Even the tracks that feel a little detached from this core aesthetic somehow manage to find their place here. The Angus Andrew-featuring single “Rumpus Room” integrates Liars’ anxious disco-punk and almost reconnects with their 2002 debut album in its nervous tone, while the expansive post-rock of “It Bothers Me All The Time” with Jonathan Meiburg embraces Shearwater’s Talk Talk-esque complexity in a way that anticipates Stewart working with a large budget and more spacious production.

Where things are a little more disjointed isn’t so much in the quality, but the longevity of some of those songs. There’s the tracks featuring Owen Pallett and Twin Shadow, which stand out initially but conclusively blur together, while others just seem to fall away, preceding more impressive experiments (sorry, “A Classic Screw”). The Cure cover “One Thousand Years” features Chelsea Wolfe, here resorting to her electronic side, drags a little at over six minutes, while the minuscule 15-second spoken word “ANTS”, functioning as a closer, just seems a little goofy.

In that, it’s clear that OH NO will not be remembered as one of Xiu Xiu’s most stellar records. Yet, as usual with collaborations, it’s likely that each listener will find their own tracks they ditch, just like different ones will stand out, especially given the varying degrees of artistic touches these additional musicians bring with their own aesthetics and histories.

What remains in the end is sort of an entry point for the group – a focus away from self-reference in a way where these tracks could appeal to those more familiar with their contemporaries. At the same time, some of the wildness of Stewart’s more daring paths into nakedly emotional expression is definitely missing here, especially after the gothic industrial leanings of previous album Girl with Basket of Fruit. And, considering how interesting the ventures are with those musicians more removed from Stewart’s sound, part of me wonders how this album would have gone if more foreign entities would have been involved. Imagine a track featuring The Residents, or any of their previously mentioned collaborative giants, further breaking down Stewart’s aesthetics. In that sense, the most fascinating question OH NO raises is where this approach could take Xiu Xiu, while its initial answers – even if not all-out brilliant – are nourishing enough for those who hunger.