At first glance, character actor Sal Mineo may seem like a peculiar namesake for a collaboration between two artists as uncompromising and confrontational as Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu) and Eugene Robinson (Oxbow). Best known for playing teenage street toughs in films like Rebel Without a Cause, Mineo was one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for filling roles meant for people of color (a practice that has continued well into the present if this shit’s any indication). Scroll a little further down his Wikipedia page, though, and the picture comes into sharper focus. Coming out as bisexual in the 1960s, he was one of the first actors in Hollywood to leave the closet behind. Despite multiple Academy Award nominations and roles in lucrative films, Mineo’s career had begun to stagnate by the mid-60s, and in 1976, he was stabbed to death in a fatal robbery in the alley behind his Los Angeles apartment.
Sal Mineo: A member of one marginalized community who built a career portraying members of others before eventually meeting a violent and untimely end. That sounds about right, but it still doesn’t offer much insight into the sonic artifact itself. Even by the formidable standards of Stewart’s and Robinson’s respective bodies of work, Sal Mineo is a challenging record. Its 24 tracks are not so much “songs” as sonic outbursts displaying varying degrees of musicality. Robinson’s penchant for violent personalities and hardboiled narrators is ever on display, yet the narrative ligaments that bind these seething vignettes together are too faint to perceive.
The record has the hideous, dreamlike quality of a descent into the underworld, one that is a nightmare reflection of the modern metropolis, and Robinson gives voice to all the damned, keening, gibbering, shouting boasts or threats. Images of violence are glimpsed as though from the corner of the eye: a figure tied to a chair in a room where the radio is nattering, a woman reminiscing in French about her mother who murdered children and “Either had them to eat/ Or did not have them to eat.” We are dragged forward down blind alleys, attempting to navigate by echoes and recursions of figures like the (stygian) pit boss or the grim refrain of “Between you and your money/ We know which he likes best.” Money is the key word here, the prize at the center of the labyrinth. In Robinson’s world, there are those who want it and those who have it but want more of it. With enough cash in hand, whatever you desire is yours for the taking — sex, status, murder, or shelter somewhere high enough above the city to feel free of its sickly gravitational pull.
Stewart matches Robinson’s confused and fragmentary delivery with his equally clipped and shattered soundtracks. He’s all over the place on this, convulsing between glacial drones, chintzy synth pulses, Philip Glass-like exercises in minimalist composition, and formless eruptions of noise. Robinson’s voice often seems like it’s thrusting itself between the gaps of Stewart’s erratic compositions, but when they do manage to lock into a groove, as on “The Primary Bell” or “Promise Every Night,” it creates a jarring effect that almost approaches beauty. While the merciless brevity of the tracks can be frustrating, the tossed-off feeling masks its own hidden symmetries and confluences, like how the rattling hubcap sound that introduces “Menagerie in Munich” forms the backbone of the concréte-descent-into-madness “What’s Your Problem?” and then mutates into a monstrous cacophony on “Bit of Habits.”
Sal Mineo is tantalizing in its incompleteness, like an unpaginated manuscript rescued from a fire. Listening to it in multiple configurations, you get hints of a totality impossible to reconstruct. The record, like its relation to its titular figure, remains a mystery, and its brief susurrations of greed, failure, wrath, and desire are an enigma all the more seductive for its impregnability.