To me, Xiu Xiu has always been a project marked by its ambition; whether it’s finding new ways to express the spirit of musical heavyweights like Nina Simone or Angelo Badalamenti, or forging a new kind of visceral yet fragile sound on albums like A Promise or 2019’s Girl with Basket of Fruit. Jamie Stewart’s efforts with the band could’ve finished years ago and I suspect their accomplishments would still be as relevant as ever. Fortunately for the listening public, however, there has been no end to the band’s drive to explore the cavernous potential of their sound. Their latest project OH NO!, stands as a testament to that journey, while paying homage to the artists who have inspired them throughout.
An album of duets and collaborations, Xiu Xiu give off a retrospective air in this new project. All the tracks align with the many different sounds that the band have experimented with over the years, and for fans, it feels like a revisiting of various sonic moments within their discography to date. The first track ‘Sad Mezcalita’ immediately broadcasts a depth to the production elements that beckons in the cinematic side to this record. The song duets with Sharon Von Etten, who at this point should need no introduction, and explores an almost cowboy-western atmosphere that is returned to throughout the album. I am referring to plucky echoing guitars, thunderous reverb-heavy swells played over the rattling drum tones – it’s all very Morricone.
We hear this atmospheric quality again in ‘The Grifters’ with Drag City’s Haley Fohr, rising to meet Stewart’s more operatic tone of voice while exploring a confrontational narrative surrounding loyalty and trust between outlaws. From here it’s straight into the petrifying ‘Goodbye For Good’, with a single ringing guitar note seeming to suspend the song in mid-air while sampled elements from the Xiu Xiu classic ‘Ian Curtis Wishlist’ play in the background. This might give you a sense of how quickly the album can change from one element to another, but I will attest to the excellent mixing and editing of the tracks, which prevent this feature of the album from ever being jarring or hard to listen to. It allows the band to flow between ideas, shifting from new sounds and returning to old ones.
Saying this, the band has not stemmed their own growth by leaving stranger elements of their music behind. For example, the track ‘I Cannot Resist’, that echoes through a call and response duet with darkwave musician Deb Demure of Drab Majesty. All before Stewart, in a heavily compressed voice, delivers the lines, “bong bing bonko bong, a head rolling down the stairs”. It’s a jarring statement, but manages to be ridiculous, menacing and catchy all at the same time; which really is what Xiu Xiu are all about.
The pre-release of “A Bottle of Rum” had given me a sense of the potential lightness of this album, with its uplifting drive showing a pop angle for Xiu Xiu. It’s a sound they had delved into in 2017’s Forget, but this time there’s a real novelty to the tone of voice that I found refreshing. The song sounds almost like the intro to a late 90s feel good sitcom, with jangling acoustic guitars that flutter behind a synthpop track. It really is beautiful.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of this pop spectrum, are songs like ‘Rumpus Room’ (with Angus Andrew of Liars) which ring with heavy beats reminiscent of the aforementioned Girl with Basket of Fruit. The song thumps along a track littered by the layered vocals of Stewart, flashing like strobe, expressing the angsty and blithe in a way that Xiu Xiu know they can achieve.
Other notable highlights include the track “Fuzzy Gong Fight”, which features primarily the vocals of veteran Xiu Xiu member Angela Seo. This feature helps achieve a somewhat threatening aura, that clambers above the deep and heavy ambience. This builds before Seo’s voice stirs with the line, “there is no ice in my drink”, with a chilling delivery that transitions the song into a full and billowing ballad. This building bridges the gap between the soft but menacing ambient tracks, and the hard hitting industrial bangers like “One Hundred Years” with Chelsea Wolfe. The sound comes thick and fast, featuring clanging drum elements and a foreboding drive to the instrumentation. It’s Xiu Xiu reinvesting themselves in the post-rock style that gave them their start.
Xiu Xiu are a band that needs to be heard to be believed, and no negative comment on tracklist cohesiveness or shifting atmosphere is worth your time, especially when concerning OH NO. This is why I hold it in high regard, because it’s an undertaking that is glad to be dynamic in its presentation, bold in its message and a reminder of why I am a Xiu Xiu fan. I hope this album becomes a bridge for new fans to join the ranks, since it is possibly one of their more accessible albums, with some tracks perhaps considered radio friendly. This is not a failure of artistic vision, but rather a celebration for what they as a group have achieved and a thank you to those who helped get there.