Xiu Xiu – Oh No
Released March 26th, 2021 on Polyvinyl Records
Jamie Stewart is a weird guy who makes weird music. Honestly, without turning in a 10,000 word essay on queerness in indie rock that is the closest summation I can possibly make. Someone – Pitchfork, probably – once described his voice as a fragile cross between Robert Smith’s ‘on the brink of falling apart’ vocals and Trent Reznor’s deep anger. That it actually sounds like neither is a mark of how out-there his music is. It’s difficult to say it’s ‘cutting edge’, as that requires a sort of growth and leadership that he has avoided so far. Despite being a constant presence in the overall indie world since 2002 they’ve never been counted in the same circles as Arcade Fire, the National, or St. Vincent. Indie listeners remain weirdly hostile toward Xiu Xiu, except in some niche areas. Part of it, admittedly, circles back onto Stewart’s voice. At its best it is jarring and emotionally rending, pure catharsis in the space of a single song. At its worst it resembles a hysterical person whimpering and crying in the corner, with very little clue as to why.
Oh No gives Stewart a chance to pair that voice with a litany of others, ranging from the obscure to the divine. As an album of duets, it gives listeners a fresh insight into Xiu Xiu’s music; at the very least, it gives people an in on a band that you typically badly need a specific angle to get into. It helps that they are musically at their best here; the songs for the most part play to the strengths of the guests. “Sad Mezcalita”, with Sharon Van Etten, creeps and crawls and provides space for Van Etten’s reverent whisper. “Rumpus Room”, featuring L.A.’s shape-shifting noise terrorists liars, is a better liars song than that group has managed over the past couple of albums. The track with indie-Springsteen hero Twin Shadows, “Saint Dymphna”, actually allows space for anthemic melody, a relative rarity in Xiu Xiu songs. The centerpiece of the album, though, is the cover of The Cure’s “One Hundred Years” with metal deconstructionist Chelsea Wolfe; the duet manages to bring out the pure goth dance-club darkness at the heart of the song, spiraling denser until it swallows all light. Other tracks do not fare quite as well; his duet with Owen Pallet doesn’t really go anywhere, and he feels rather out of place on the lead single “A Bottle Of Rum” with Liz Harris. Overall, though, this “Xiu Xiu and Guests” record holds forth a great example of consistently good Stewart can be if he lets himself be good.