Review Summary: Xiu Xiu clips the highs and lows to make a decent album.
When first listening to any Xiu Xiu album, I invariably come to a song or two where I unclick the little "play" box in my iTunes module. Xiu Xiu, despite their few catchy songs have produced an equal number of completely unlistenable tracks. I have to manually skip through the nails-on-chalkboard scratching and odd blipping on the bridge of "Sad Pony Guerilla Girl" unless I dare subject myself to a severe case of the willies and my attention definitely wanes during "Walnut House." A Promise
though had a large number of amazing, stand-out tracks. Fabulous Muscles
featured their catchiest material yet, but also forces the masochism of "Support Our Troops (Black Angels OH!) onto the listener, nearly cancelling out the sweetness of songs like "Clowne Towne."
So when I first listened to The Air Force
I was surprised I didn't find myself cringing too much on any one song. Xiu Xiu's abrasive style demands that the listener cringe at the moments of Stewart's greatest lyrical self-flagellation or musical dissonance, and that in many ways is what makes the music compelling. In fact, the constant dissonance and cacophonous aspects of their music allow the truly consonant and beautiful moments like the softly distorted guitar of "I Luv the Valley OH!" and the warm synth tones of "Apistat Commander" all the more gripping and vital. So while I didn't have to skip any track because of an emotional low (though "Wig Master" did make my index finger itch on the mouse as my arrow icon idled over the 'next track' button), I also wasn't completely absorbed by any one track's emotional high (though the prettiness of the guitar on "The Pineapple vs. The Watermelon" was a pleasant surprise). There are some good tracks here, but none of the dangerously pretty tracks that defined their previous releases. I'm not shivering alone and naked in a cold, dank basement, but I'm also not smiling exultantly with emotional catharsis. It would appear as if Xiu Xiu has been pruned on both ends to make an album that is fairly palatable if not particularly challenging.
To create this palatable range, Stewart et al seem to be relying on their typical tricks like electronic blasts and dissonant string intervals, but have also thrown in some new techniques. I'm a huge fan of the more traditional instrumentation of "The Pineapple vs. The Watermelon," which derives its weirdness from the fragmented nature of the melodies and not the weird textures or electronic blipping. The end result is a fairly gorgeous song, and definitely the only true stand-out on the album, though it doesn't rank up with the likes of "Apistat Commander" if only for the tepid emotional content. "Hello from Eau Claire" and "Save Me Save Me" have an almost predictable indie slant with "Hello..." featuring Postal Service drum beats and token female vocals over what sounds like a glockenspiel. "Save Me Save Me" relies on a simple, catchy drum beat and goofy vocals making it sound like its somewhere in between Interpol and Animal Collective. These two tracks are low points because they sound like typical indie fare and not the insanely original styles invented by Stewart in the past. Other tracks seem to float along in arc of the album. I was almost surprised by the Aphex Twin-like opening to "Bishop, CA" but the rest of the track is somewhat uneventful and only fulfills the initial promise of the opening in little 20 seconds interludes throughout the song. I shouldn't neglect to mention "Boy Soprano" either, who's trilling flutes and meaty synth energize a pretty damn good song.
Overall, The Air Force
is another good album from Xiu Xiu. They are much more original than any other indie band out right now and actually pack an emotional punch. However, The Air Force
is definitely a step down in both originality and emotion, leaving Xiu Xiu rutted in a vanilla midrange. This album actually has me aching to hear the wild, non sensical dissonance of their previous works, knowing that putting in the time on those songs will win me some key, truly beautiful tracks, in the weird, balancing karma that is a Xiu Xiu album.