By Sean Ford | 14 July 2005
In the scientific world, polarization is defined as “the partial or complete polar separation of positive and negative electric charge in a nuclear, atomic, molecular, or chemical system.” In the music world, you can find out all you need to know about polarization by throwing on a Xiu Xiu record at a party. Reactions will most likely range from knowing head nods and ecstatic screeches of joy to cries of “great Caesar’s ghost, what the shit is this?!?” and manifestations of violence towards CD players and the people guilty of putting Xiu Xiu records there within.
So, yeah, not the best party music.
Reactions to the music range from unfettered, Katie Holmes-lookin’-at-Tom Cruise adoration to deep-seeded, Karl Rove-lookin’-at-hippies hatred. But there’s always a reaction, and, it’s almost always strong. In spite of complex and innovative arrangements with instrumentation ranging from knives to gamelan orchestra to techno dance bits in the service of song structures as simple as verse-chorus-verse or "avant-garde experiments" (see: “Support Or Troops Oh! (Black Angels Oh!)”), Xiu Xiu is full of elements that either piss off or turn off perspective listeners. (Again, see: “Support Our Troops Oh! (Black Angels Oh!)”)
The atonal barrage that pervaded the group’s early work, inventive or not, is certainly off-putting at times, and there is the issue of the band’s unfortunate image (courtesy of some poor choices in cover art and even poorer choices in cover stickers), but mostly what seems to be the determining factor in a listener’s appreciation (or patience, even) for the band is frontman Jamie Stewart. Stewart’s unsteady whisper is often punctuated by a manic freak-out yelp—a confrontational take on the classic quiet-loud dynamic that can be taken as either completely sincere or completely immature and grating. It’s a completely subjective thing for each listener, but it will often make or break one’s interest in the band.
Of course, there’s still the fact that the music is often jarring, atonal and abrasive, and the lyrics can indeed be flinch-inducing. But for every jarring, flinch-inducing “Support Our Troops”, there’s always been a heartrendingly gorgeous song like Stewart’s meditation on his father’s suicide, “Mike,” or a pop gem like “I Luv the Valley” to tip the scales in a given album’s favor. Those songs feature lyrics that could be considered uneasy listening with their confessional lyrics, but the story “Mike” tells is too affecting to be tossed away as attention-whoring, and the song-writing behind “I Luv the Valley” is too perfectly crafted to ignore. In short: any Xiu Xiu song was rife with the elements that tend to turn people off, but there was almost always something that redeemed it or held it together as a great, provocative song.
“Was” being the operative term.
Xiu Xiu’s newest album features the return of integral original band member Corey McCulloch to (more or less) full-time duty as well as the return of an actual live band to the recording process after the mostly Stewart-alone-in-the-studio effort that was Fabulous Muscles. The appropriately named (and possible homage to the Cure?) La Forêt is indeed a muddled forest and slowed down by songs that are, well, slow and muddled. I’m sure Xiu Xiu’s supporters will say that what Stewart is doing is quite similar to his pretty acoustic album Fag Patrol, but too many songs here move at a glacial pace and seem to take away from Xiu Xiu’s strength: an ear for melody, a love for dissonance, songs that go interesting places and engaging instrumentation. None of the above are present on tracks like the painful “Rose of Sharon” or “Ale.” It’s unfortunate, because the lyrics are far and away some of Stewart’s best; examples: “This is you and me / I want you to know / as you’re being eaten / the lights will be on,” from the claustrophobic but unremarkable “Saturn” (supposedly a song about eating George W. Bush).
There are bright spots here. “Muppet Face” starts with assonant chiming and moves into a catchy guitar riff; “Pox” goes oddly Depeche Mode, a fantastic car crash of “I Luv the Valley”-meets- “Enjoy the Silence.” On opener “Clover,” Stewart sings about an ill-fated relationship with pitch-perfect minimal backing music on vibraphone and double bass. It’s an infuriating high, because at least four other songs on the album try to go in that direction and just fall flat—or, more accurately, never get up in the first place. “Dangerous You Shouldn’t Be Here” is an austere, long, slow tale about a witch that features typically morbid lyrics, but Stewart seems to go from bored to overly theatrical for little or no reason.
“Yellow Raspberry” closes the album on a hopeful note—featuring brilliant, light drumming and gorgeous double bass, the song is one of the rare moments the full band seems comfortable backing Stewart. As on “Clover,” they use a full, lush sound to truly deepen the conflicted emotions that plague Stewart’s lyrics. Hopefully those two songs will act as a road map for the band, because everything else on the album outside of the gamelan beat-happy gems of “Muppet Face,” “Pox” and “Bog People” seems like a musical dead-end.