by Stephanie Duncan
When Xiu Xiu burst onto the scene with their avant garde debut album, Knife Play, they wanted to be heard. Now coming into their fourth album, a handful EPs, they've taken on an entirely new tone. They've managed to completely morph themselves from over-the-top and outlandish to their own brand of pop to settling down entirely. Their newest release, "La Foret' starts off incredibly restrained. Jaime Stewart's voice strains over top a slowly strummed guitar which then switches to layered on chimes vibrating over top the intensely rich cello. Oddly enough, despite the fact that Jaime's voice is clearly forefront on the track he treats it more as an instrument than something to convey words. One thing I noticed was that I rarely noticed the lyrics. So let's talk about what I DID notice.
Another habit of his is to get very intimate with the mic. As in, lips right up against, every movement and snap of saliva audible. Sometimes you end up listening to what's in between rather than what's there and how elegant it seems. The imperfections of the instruments seem intensified; the snare drums scratchier, the cymbals more like trashcan lids than anything else. On a few tracks, they venture and dance across that avant pop line. Anyone who has listened to Xiu Xiu previously knows they are capable of some truly wonderful and eccentric pop. But about half-way through this album, I started to miss the really upfront and on edge Jaime. None of this "I am in therapy and dealing with my issues and don't need to scream about it Jaime. He's still emotional as ever but a different kind, a slight tenderness shows signs of development. As mentioned before, Jaime's voice is definitely something to pay attention but a recurring theme is him never quite raising his voice and when he does, it's pushed to the back so it's hardly audible. It's generally pushed back for something closer to fuzz than actual instruments, it's as if any heavy emotion on his part is being silenced.
Despite introducing orchestra sounds to it, it does get a little tiresome. They never really veer off the 'restrained' path and when they do, they go back to it after about a minute. It doesn't seem like minimalism so much as self-discipline; where they once exploded with sound and cacophony, their music now tends to simmer. Xiu Xiu has a very identifiable sound, even amidst all of their experimentations they always retain that one quality. There's exploration here and I'm sure the level of discipline shown in this record came as great surprise to many people. I could play connect-the-dots for hours with their various moods and sounds, but I'll refrain. Where Fabulous Muscles was an excellent combination of pure unabridged insanity, it also showed off the brand new Xiu Xiu; the Xiu Xiu that could blow everyone away with their cover of 'Fast Car'. And now, well, it's kind of boring. It was good for one song, but the quiet tortured whisper cannot sustain an album properly. There's good pieces but as a whole, it just doesn't work. Where they screamed, they now whimper and flop over. So I'm close to saying that this is what the album is-- a flop.