How Jamie Stewart and his Xiu Xiu project have developed into cult favorites for bookish indie youngsters is a bit of a riddle, considering just how bland and lazy most college rock has become; love them or hate them, Xiu Xiu traverse so far off the middle-of-the-road that they ride over the guard rails and into the deepest, dankest bog down below. Going from listening to 95% of today's safe indie rock to listening to Xiu Xiu is like going straight from ingesting caffeine to overdosing on bad acid, and while its surely admirable that the cardigan set is being relatively bold with their musical choices, it's still a bit of a puzzle. Regardless, Xiu Xiu may as well be full-blown indie stars now based on cult-acclaim, and with each year, we're left to try piece together exactly where and how Stewart and his various players will continue to captivate and enthrall an ever-fickle public.
The impossibility of tracing where Xiu Xiu are heading has to do with their disregard for straightforward, stylistic trajectories. Rather, each release is a zig-zag of pop smarts versus industrial-strength freakouts, and if the pop tunes get catchier, the "experimental" jams get that much more alienating. And even taking Jamie's older, more obscure musical works into account (i.e., IBOPA and Ten In The Swear Jar), it's abundantly clear the guy is venturing even further into the bleakest recesses of sound with his latest endeavor. For instance, where Fabulous Muscles might have been the breakthrough, last year's La Foret ventured into testing minimalism, more proof that Xiu Xiu are never ones to take the most obvious solution to heart. Thus, with The Air Force, we find Xiu Xiu neither progressing nor wearing out their stylistic quota, though on first listen it may surely sound a bit too business as usual, or as close an impenetrable band like Xiu Xiu can get to coasting.
"Boy Soprano" is the sort-of FUBAR pop song that's expected on each disc, but its twee-leaning melody isn't much to grumble at after a choir of Stewart's and piercing-abrasion overtakes. Likewise, Caralee McElroy's vocal turn on "Hello From Eau Claire" is a modest treat, Xiu Xiu's most deliberate attempt at a cute indie-pop song, and the record's only obvious point of divergence from any past efforts.
But treating The Air Force as the first teeth-smashing stumble into monotony on Xiu Xiu's career pathway overlooks all the elements that gel after repeated exposure. Opener "Buzz Saw" is a creeping and quasi-gorgeous bit of mope, while "Vulture Piano" increases the intensity ten-fold, but also features one of Stewart's most lovely melodies and vocals. If anything, The Air Force is yet more proof that Stewart is an unexpected master at melody, maybe to the point where he feels a certain self-deprecating shame in possessing such a talent, thus bringing us the abundance of sonic filth that litters his wonderfully-damaged creations.
Elsewhere, on more sparse set-pieces like "PJ In The Streets..." and "The Pineapple Vs The Watermelon," Jamie becomes a guitar-slinging troubadour for the dour no-wave set, creating compelling folkie ditties belied by their bluntly uncomfortable narratives. Speaking of such, it's rather easy to tell with The Air Force that Stewart's restraint only heightens the ennui and hopelessness that make his songs so compelling and paradoxically cathartic. Rather than the panic-attack screams of "I Broke Up," Stewart's new soft mumbles have the evened-out mannerisms of medicated apathy.
Depending on who you ask, The Air Force could be the most well-rounded Xiu Xiu record in a while, and judging by more straightforwardly pleasurable songs like "Save Me Save Me" and "The Fox & The Rabbit," Stewart and company aren't afraid of courting a much larger audience than would have been possible during, say, A Promise. The Air Force may signal that Xiu Xiu isn't as jarring and bewildering as they once were, but there's more than enough fortitude and craft present to ensure that Stewart will always be a good handful of steps ahead of everyone else making "experimental" pop. It's another year, another Xiu Xiu record, and that's still yet to be a cynical statement.
1. Buzz Saw
2. Boy Soprano
3. Hello from Eau Claire
4. Vulture Piano
5. PJ in the Streets...
6. Bishop, CA
7. Saint Pedro Glue Stick
8. The Pineapple Vs The Watermelon
9. Save Me Save Me
10. The Fox & the Rabbit
11. Wig Master