Review: Xiu Xiu – OH NO
National Music Reviews
Polyvinyl Record Co.
XIU XIU = Mount Eerie + Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds x Arca
Experimentalist, post-punk, post-rock, post-genre, post-post duo Xiu Xiu continue to mutate expectations with their latest release, OH NO, an album composed entirely of duets. In addition to core members Jamie Stewart and Angela Seo, OH NO boasts a powerhouse lineup of collaborators and features including Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater, Alice Bag, Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr. and Chelsea Wolfe. An unsurprising tonal shift from the band’s last record, the doom-poem Girl With a Basket of Fruit, OH NO is comparatively a more up-beat and hooky “pop” record along the lines of past albums such as FORGET and Fabulous Muscles.
Upon listening, it only takes a few of these duets to be completely bowled over by the vehement emotional statement that is OH NO. Produced through most of the COVID-19 pandemic and releasing upon the cusp of reentry, the album reflects the treasuring of newly deepened relationships and communities as well as the anxieties of returning to the relations—personal or municipal—that were cruelest to us before lockdown. Tracks like “A Bottle of Rum” (feat. Liz Harris of Grouper)—one of XIU XIU’s most straightforward, but no less exhilarating, indie-pop tracks to date—explores this thematic duality as it ventures into the the ether with its boundless vocals and percussion while containing the repeated lyric, “Curare”—the paralyzing extract used by indigenous hunters of Central and South America.
In the opening track, “Sad Mezcalita”, the curtains are drawn upon Stewart’s croons entangled with Sharon Van Etten’s whispers in a pairing that feels as if the two have been in a passionate, perennial marriage under all our noses. The song’s intimate vocals and cathartic waves of instrumentation set the rhythm of swells and dirges that the rest of the album has yet to perform.
Diving into the grotesque moods of the past year in a way that only XIU XIU could do, the band covers The Cure’s “One Hundred Years,” which cranks the original’s deluge up to 11 while the listener awaits judgement from Stewart and Chelsea Wolfe as they chant over a Lynchian industrialist ensemble. “Rumpus Room” (feat. Angus Andrew of Liars’ fame) is easily one of the catchiest songs of the album, but XIU XIU doesn’t let you get too comfortable listening to it as it quickly reveals a demented clownery with its infectious chorus, “Rumpus rumpus room room / Black black blue blue blue blue.” Even on tracks that, on the onset, appear to be balladic, such as “I Cannot Resist” (feat. Drab Majesty’s Deb Demure), Stewart’s lyricism slashes through—“Bong bing bonk-o bung / A head rolling down the stairs,” he sings.
But that’s not to say OH NO is overly indulgent of the macabre; in fact it is because of its hellscapes that moments on the record like “I Dream of Someone Else Entirely” (feat. Owen Pallet) are able to tempt tears of relief provided by plucking banjos and waves of static. In its entirety, the album is a reminder that as we wander into reentry, where there is continued darkness and isolation, there is also hope in community and even humanity. It is up to us to choose the latter. OH NO’s final track, “ANTS” (feat. Valerie Diaz), abridges this eloquently—and in proper XIU XIU fashion: “Little ants, take a chance / When you dance / It could be the last dance you ever do / It could be the last dance you ever do!” –Aidan Croft