by: John Penny
Xiu Xiu is nothing, if not uncompromising. The band has the remarkable ability to change styles with each of its albums, yet its songs are unmistakable. Jamie Stewart has proven on his fifth Xiu Xiu (pronounced shoo-shoo) release, The Air Force, that not only can he remain relevant without catering to the masses, but that he also has a masterful pop sensibility. Abandoning the murkiness of last year’s La Forêt, Stewart builds on the damaged pop of his 2004 breakthrough Fabulous Muscles to create his strongest and most accessible release to date.
The album opens with the ballad “Buzz Saw,” which is characterized by the type of near-beauty that Xiu Xiu exists to create. In a different world, this could be a pristine love song that wouldn’t be out of place if played at a prom; but here, longing and romance is replaced with the familiar Stewart themes of unrequited love, fragility, and deviant sexual behavior. The song is driven by a steady snare hit and a piano part played by album co-producer (and Deerhoof member) Greg Saunier. The orchestration is intentionally sparse and tenuous to great effect; the teasing, barely-there synth line that appears in the “chorus” underscores the deliberateness of each musical brushstroke on The Air Force.
“Boy Soprano” is one of two stand-out singles (along with “Save Me Save Me”) on The Air Force. The song begins with a cacophonous mess of accordion, before launching into an extremely catchy guitar line backed by programmed beats. Stewart devotes a verse to each of three young men he has said to have “paternalistic relationship[s]” with, yet one can’t help but notice his frustration and desire to change the nature of their association. Jamie then hands the microphone over to his cousin, Caralee McElory, for her first lead vocal turn on “Hello from Eau Claire.” This feminist tone poem is the poppiest and least dramatic in Xiu Xiu’s entire catalog. While this song may attract a wider audience due to its unchallenging sound and content, it’s ultimately one of The Air Force’s minor failures. The song stands out not for being exceptional, but simply for being itself; it would be better suited for one of Xiu Xiu’s myriad EPs or singles.
Familiar (but not unwelcome) incongruities abound, as evidenced in “Vulture Piano;” the sugary hooks border on obscene when examining the liner notes. Lyrics such as “A duped bridal hole and / A boyhood slipping in blood,” make this potentially the most delightful-sounding song about rape ever. “PJ in the Streets…” is a more subdued effort, yet its Smiths-referencing lyrics describe the song’s role on the album: “Just a fleeting thought.”
The themes of death and rape return in the ironic “Bishop, CA.” The song is dense and noisy, sounding like the Xiu Xiu of yore; yet, by the time Stewart launches into the closing mantra of “Walla walla walla walla walla walla hey,” it’s clear that he has matured as an artist and mastered his craft. Some of Stewart’s least melodramatic moments appear on songs dealing with suicide. As with “Mike” from Fabulous Muscles (though less overwhelmingly sad), Jamie examines the emotions surrounding his father’s death on “Watermelon vs. the Pineapple.” The song is pure and free of histrionics, closing with an honest and confused question: “Can I pray for your return?”
At the album’s close, the pitch-shifted spoken word of “Wig Master” makes good on the previous hints at obscenity. A tremendously rich-sounding double bass provides the background to a dialogue of promises between depraved lovers. With allusions to candle-play, pica, spanking, and performing sex acts on teenagers, the song’s overtly aberrant content is in contrast to the rest of The Air Force, even if it’s to be expected from the band. However, “Wig Master” does offer up what is perhaps the album’s best lyric: “Loneliness isn’t being alone / It’s when someone loves you / And you don’t have it in you to love them back.”
Despite some minor missteps, The Air Force shows continuity that is uncommon for a Xiu Xiu release. Jamie Stewart continues to challenge his listeners and forces them to experience raw emotion along with him, rather than observe complacently. The near-perfect songwriting and instrumentation is what ranks this album best among its oeuvre. Only time will tell what Xiu Xiu has in store for 2007; one can only hope it’s as well-conceived as The Air Force.
RIYL: Final Fantasy, Deerhoof, Animal Collective, Patrick Wolf