Xiu Xiu, the musical embodiment of Jamie Stewart and his close circle of friends (notably, producer Cory McCulloch), are one of the most consistent bands of the last fifteen years. That consistency isn’t just in quantity (they have released an album every year since their 2002 debut Knife Play, as well as various EPs), but also in quality, where they have crafted their own genre of music and have expanded the boundaries within it.
Last year’s Fabulous Muscles was one of the best albums of 2005 and found the group exposed to a fan base they probably never dreamed of. The internet’s constant cheerleading made many check out a band they may not have otherwise; one that incorporates unique instrumentation, “uninviting sounds,” provocative and disturbing lyrical imagery, and a vocal delivery that changes from whispered to tortured in a matter of seconds. That is nothing to say of their constant touring schedule, which finds them playing all over the globe, taking occasional time off to record another album. All of that has added up to La Foret being one of the most anticipated indie releases of the year.
La Foret finds Stewart and company ride the line between A Promise‘s electronic experimentation and Fabulous Muscles foray into pop sensibilities. “Shimmering” is an adjective that could be used to describe several songs, from the cascading bell collage that begins “Muppet Face” to the charging autoharp melody that underrides “Bog People”. The subject matter is similar to previous albums, relationships, stark descriptions of sexual acts and behavior, and musical/lyrical references to the military all make appearances, but it no way does it feel tired or predictable.
Though this effort lies between his two best in sound and approach, it doesn’t mean that Xiu Xiu hasn’t expanded their boundaries even further. “Pox” is the most danceable song in Xiu Xiu’s entire catalog. It is practically a disco track, with its pulsing back beat and angular guitar layering. There is also a more acoustic presence on this album as well. Opening track “Clover” is all acoustic, with Stewart’s voice barely rising above a slight mumble, and “Baby Captain” starting off sparse than giving to percolating 808-style drum sounds.
What people find most disturbing, or shocking (as clichÃƒÂ© as that term is), about the music is its ability to reach a depth that is rarely achieved in any art form, music or otherwise. The paradoxical nature of art is that the artist is trying to eliminate the recognition of the tools necessary to communicate his/her emotions. Previous songs like “I Broke UP (SJ)” and “Ian Curtis Wishlist” reveal the basest emotional registers that many choose to ignore in themselves, hence the “shocking” tag.
“Rose of Sharon (Grey Ghost Version)” is one of those moments that separate those who relish that sort of exploration and those who prefer their music predictable. His strained yell of “You try so hard to be as sweet as you can for me/but I don’t see you for who you are/Rose of Sharon in my failing light” over the symphonic drone of synthesizers reaches the emotional apex of an album that is, at times, more guarded than previous efforts. But where in prior albums the listener is left with a sense of isolation, the rising, choir-like aura suggests that maybe there is a sign of shared optimism, faith, a communal catharsis.