XXL (Xiu Xiu Larsen)
By Sean Ford | 13 October 2005
Fact is, I’m rather skeptical of collaborations and I haven’t really ever found much evidence to convince me not to be. Sure, in the past few years we’ve gotten a couple of gems, but most have just been middling; the Postal Service made some great songs, for instance, but I’ve just always believed that a real band functions as enough of a meeting of minds on its own to accomplish something amazing. Isn’t there something to plugging away and working together in a garage for a few years to perfect everything?
Well, it turns out that the toiling in the garage for years thing may be overrated. Xiu Xiu and Larsen got together to drink some wine in Italy and apparently decided to record an album together over the course of a few weeks. The two bands are separated by thousands of miles geographically, but musically, the union makes a good deal of sense. As Xiu Xiu has been reeling in its freak-out moments slowly over the course of its last two albums, the band has been exploring slower arrangements and more classical compositions—something never more apparent than on this year’s La Forêt. The new approach for Xiu Xiu suddenly brings them much closer to the instrumental territory Larsen has inhabited for a while now, and they use live instruments to create their music, which owes both to austere classical music and Autechre.
It turns out the bands work together quite well, to the point where they consider their work together the work of a new band rather than the kind of one-off collaboration that scares me so. The music, culled from a series of lengthy jams recorded over those few weeks in Italy, moves between slow orchestral swells and more beat-driven, demented pop songs that have always been Xiu Xiu’s calling card. The mood throughout is reflective and melancholic—a perfect fit for each group.
Ciautistico! alternates between orchestral pop songs like “Paw Paw Paw Paw Paw Paw Paw” and droning instrumentals that seem to be Larsen’s realm. “Minne Mouseistic” is one such drone piece, with lyrics sung/spoken in Italian. A little long in places, these pieces are generally effective soundscapes that serve to setup the more poppy moments, like “(Pokey in Your) Gnocchi" (featuring a lovely subdued guitar-riff, some cinematic droning keys, orchestral sounds bells and chimes and Stewart’s restrained vocals, it’s the heart of the album), but also serves as a true meeting point between the two bands.
The instrumental “Distorted Duck” uses a melodic delayed ascending guitar riff playing alongside an altered duck quack, used as percussion. On songs like this, it’s hard to tell where one band ends and the other begins; Xiu Xiu’s pop has been absorbed into Larsen’s classical ethos and vice versa. “Prince Charming” is one song where Jamie Stewart can’t resist the urge to freak-out and brings the Italians along with him; the song is kept in check by Larsen’s droning, slowly ascending keys and manages to keep Stewart from going where so many Xiu Xiu detractors fear to follow him.
For Xiu Xiu, hopefully this collaboration will help them make sense of the classical edge that was creeping into parts of La Foret . Ciautistico‘s slower songs feature an energy trying to burst out, creating a restrained intensity that was missing from Xiu Xiu’s last. For Larsen, I’m not sure whether they’ll look to include Xiu Xiu’s brand of demented American indie rock in their mode of working or continue along with what is obviously a well developed process. They’ve collaborated in the past with Michael Gira and it doesn’t seem to have changed them too much, so perhaps this is just another exercise for them. But as this is a collaboration that actually seems to be an equal and engaging exchange of ideas and song-writing practice, hopefully they’ll give it another go.