Three years after its release, I still believe that Xiu Xiu’s Knife Play is one of the most lyrically depressing and musically creative albums I’ve ever heard. Frontman Jamie Stewart sang tales of boredom, alienation, disease and suicide in an unfathomably histrionic tenor, amid harsh and disjointed backdrops that borrowed from industrial music, gamelan and torch balladry. The album made me queasy the first time I heard it, but that didn’t stop me from listening to it again and again. Although Xiu Xiu’s subsequent albums were all worthy, they didn’t pack nearly as much of a punch as Knife Play did. Their sophomore album A Promise tried so hard to be minimalist that it just ended up sounding undercooked. Fag Patrol‘s acoustic remakes of previously released Xiu Xiu songs didn’t interest me much, as part of Xiu Xiu’s appeal was their unconventional approach to instrumentation. Although fourth album Fabulous Muscles was an improvement, it too boasted too many remakes, and some of its songs were marred by clunky arrangements. I wondered if Xiu Xiu would EVER deliver another album that was solid from start to finish. With their latest album La Foret, I no longer need to wonder.
A number of songs on La Foret come across as the products of the failed experiments on previous albums. With its insistent kick drum and jarring, out-of-tune piano playing, “Mousey Toy” sounds like a close cousin of “Walnut House,” my least favorite song on A Promise. Fortunately, “Mousey Toy” has a stronger melody and a much more discernible structure. “Rose of Sharon (Grey Ghost Version)” is rare in that it’s a remake of a previously released Xiu Xiu song that actually IMPROVES upon the original version. Its droning harmoniums stretch the chord progression out until the song seems to stop time itself, while Jamie’s wobbly voice slowly rises to operatic levels of grandeur and intensity. Last but not least, there’s “Saturn,” whose introduction alone sounds like it was recorded in a war zone: flat-handed keyboards produce jarring bursts of dissonance, while the drum programming imitates the blast of machine guns. Jamie’s tense whispers are barely audible underneath the cacophony. The lyrics refer to our President by name and include a veiled reference to the Abu Ghraib scandal, but the music and the vocal delivery is what truly makes the song a more effective antiwar screed than Fabulous Muscles’ spoken-word disaster “Support Our Troops.”
The songs on La Foret revolve around the themes of power and anger. Jamie spends opening track “Clover” begging his antagonist not to abuse the power that he/she has over him: “Please please please/don’t don’t don’t/walk like my single hope.” The next song, “Muppet Face,” is a lurid account of someone (possibly a child, if the youthful giggling underneath the rhythm track is any indication) being raped at gunpoint. “Mousey Toy” finds Jamie crumbling under an antagonist’s seductive spell: “How did I end up here curled up on this couch? Where did you learn such a bold wink, whisking me off to your bedroom?”
Subsequent songs find Jamie taking a more aggressive tone. On “Pox,” his voice sounds paralyzed by fright, but the force with which he strums his guitar underscores the hatred in his lyrics. “Jesus is wondering,” he sings in the chorus, “if even He can love you.” Later on in the song, he tells his antagonist’s “sickening daughters” that “community college is waiting for them,” as if such a fate is even WORSE than eternal damnation. I don’t know if the people Jamie’s singing to or about actually exist, but the vividness of his lyrics make the Ecstacy-fueled biker in “Baby Captain,” the fat gamer trying in vain to cuddle up next to her cat in “Ale,” and the “bag lady’s son/beating off to the escort pages” in “Yellow Raspberry” feel real to me. When Jamie asks these people at album’s end, “What has changed as you tell the mirror hello?,” I already know the answer…and it ain’t good.
Throughout La Foret, Xiu Xiu creates musical backdrops that are equally as evocative as the lyrics. “Bog People” is a pessimist’s anthem (the chorus goes, “Why ask? Is there any reason? Why ask if it will just let up?”) that pits Jamie’s bright autoharp against band mate Caralee McElroy’s hissing percussion. The result sounds like a Celtic jig performed in the middle of a factory performing at full capacity. “Dangerous You Shouldn’t Be Here” is a stark lament for a friend who died from drowning. Like the metaphorical witch who “has come from under the ocean and…snatched my baby by the crook of her jaw,” the incidental sounds on this song rise from underneath Jamie‘s catatonic voice and guitar, only to disappear when they reach full volume. “Ale” does minimalism the right way, using only clarinet, percussion and voice to create a song that feels complete despite the spare instrumentation.
It took longer than I thought it would, but Xiu Xiu has finally lived up to the potential displayed on their debut album. Every song on La Foret is fully realized and essential --- which makes this album not only their best work, but also the best starting point for people who haven’t yet been exposed to their music. I’m even willing to call it one of the best albums of the year so far.
Artist Website: http://www.xiuxiu.org
Label Website: http://www.5rc.com