Following up 2019's adventurous Girl with Basket of Fruit, Xiu Xiu's first album of the new decade is entirely of duets that are lethargic, low-key and full of peaks and valleys.
When one thinks of duets records, the big names of a pop era long-passed come to mind: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Roberta Flack, etc. It's not exactly an album archetype in the mainstream currently, but the words "Xiu Xiu" and "mainstream" have rarely been in the same sentence before, anyway.
Currently comprised of founder Jamie Stewart and longtime member Angela Seo, Xiu Xiu's style changes from album to album—from the harsh and heavy experimentation on 2019's Girl with Basket of Fruit to 2016's reinterpretation of Angelo Badalmenti's classic score for Twin Peaks to the glitchy bitpop on 2010's Dear God, I Hate Myself. However, one facet of Xiu Xiu's sound is that they've always delivered, no matter what sound they dive into, becoming one of the most consistent bands of the century. And while that unpredictability is noticeably toned down throughout their latest effort OH NO, it still peaks throughout, sometimes to a fault.
There's an array of impressive collaborations on OH NO, featuring: Deerhoof's Greg Saunier, Liars' Angus Andrew, Sharron Van Etten, Owen Pallett, Grouper's Liz Harris and many others. And to the album's credit, the attempt to wrangle all of these diverse guests into a cohesive record is admirable. It's almost like Xiu Xiu's attempt at making a Gorillaz album, where the main thread connecting the record is Stewart's voice and the frequently-challenging instrumentals constructed by him and Seo. Unfortunately, the sheer number of guests and an intimidating 15-track, 55-minute runtime leads to one of Xiu Xiu's most bloated and meandering albums to date.
With that being said, there is still a lot to admire about OH NO. The opener "Sad Mezcalita" featuring Van Etten is one of the album's best slow-burn folk offerings. The combination of hushed tones from Van Etten and Stewart wonderfully set the stage for what is mostly a low-key and wandering album. The lead single "A Bottle of Rum" is one of Xiu Xiu's best pop song in years. The single features Liz Harris and her vocal delivery doesn't stray far from her regular style, but in the context of Xiu Xiu's dreamy and busy backdrop, it becomes as catchy as it is ethereal.
The irresistible mid-album highlight "Rumpus Room" features Andrew and is the most energetic and danceable cut on the album. Andrew and Stewart deliver a series of cryptic and surreal exchanges that border on nonsense, but cling to the edge of meaning with lines like "Pills like a maracas / You don't care who hears." But once the drums crash into the mix and the chorus begins, the song is solidified as one of the moody and fun songs in Xiu Xiu's catalogue. And Chelsea Wolfe's duet cover of The Cure's "One Hundred Years" is perfect with it retaining the original's oppressively, dark atmosphere while injecting healthy doses of analog drum machines, frantic vocal deliveries and the expected anxious patterns and industrial sensibilities the duo and Wolfe do best.
The main issue with this record is that in-between these significant highlights are long stretches of songs that are either merely good at best, or poorly structured at worst. The stretch from "Sad Mazcalita" to the Drab Majesty feature "I Cannot Resist" and the Susanne Sachsse title track doesn't contain anything bad, but all of these track exist in the same general art pop and avant-folk headspace that has already been explored at best on the opener. By the time, "Rumpus Room" comes in, it's almost a relief to hear the duo jump into a different style.
The slower, avant-folk styling Xiu Xiu takes on for nearly half the album causes it to feel like a slog, but not merely because of the styling. The melodies aren't exactly memorable, the duet performances on several feel inessential ("I Dream of Someone Else Entirely," "It Bothers Me All The Time") and the songs flow in an unpredictable way—it's inconsistent, but this sprawl could be the album's charm. They'll spend time establishing an atmosphere after verses or choruses, but it has less of a hypnotic effect especially when the listener is just waiting for the song to continue. If it weren't for the constantly cryptic and intriguing lyrics, there wouldn’t be much to grab onto during these stretches.
While OH NO may not stand out in the grand scheme of Xiu Xiu’s discography, the appeal of an underground duets record overall is undeniable. It may be bogged down by a significant number of tracks that feel inessential to album's flow, especially with the accommodation of many guests, but that really isn't the point. Fans of featured artists will enjoy this one and any underground music fanatic will find something to love here, even if its just a few select tracks. Even if OH NO isn't a major highlight for Xiu Xiu, especially when compared to their heavy and brooding previous effort, they deserve the chance to settle down with some friends and have fun making the music they want in this pandemic-world.
Highlights — "Rumpus Room," "Fuzz Gong Fight," "One Hundred Years" & "A Bottle of Rum"
OH NO is available now. Stream the new album below.