OK, "La Foret" didn't happen. It was a nice little experiment in improvisation, an attempt to make almost an entire album full of sparse ballads. Incidentally, several months following the release of "La Foret", I fell in love with "Helsabot of Caraleebot" from the "Fleshettes" EP. Sparse, tense, fragile -- these words don't even begin to describe it. That EP should have been Xiu Xiu's last word in tender acoustic ballads because since then they haven't been able to assemble three of them that I can listen to without getting bored.
Xiu Xiu's new album, "The Air Force" is an outstanding piece of work. With every Xiu Xiu album, people seem to write "This is the album that will appeal to those who weren't pre-existing fans. We swear it! It's the Xiu Xiu album that everyone can love." One pained Jamie Stewart scream later and that proclamation gets shot to hell. Those who feel that Stewart's voice is their main impediment to appreciating his music on any level should know that he's remarkably restrained here, with female vocals featured more prominently and his own vocal eccentricities are squashed for the most part. Whereas "Fabulous Muscles" was Xiu Xiu's crack at making pop music (white noise pop at that), only the delightful "Boy Soprano" really fits that mold. Over and over again, they hit upon a dazzling sequence of fascinating and unexpected sound combinations set to hummable balladry, midtempo 80's throwbacks, and anodyne noise-blanketed moods. If "Fabulous Muscles" was the pop album, then "The Air Force" may well be the power ballad album.
"Buzz Saw" begins with gentle piano that could have been lifted from a Satie piece (or "Music For Airports") before getting interrupted by snare cracks, ghostly cymbals, electro-funk squelches, a female chorus, and wind chimes -- all in turn (and in various combinations). It threatens to break out into something more menacing (and earsplitting), but that moment never comes. This is a ballad that is determined to see itself to the finish. "Vulture Piano", with it's metronomic beat and spidery bassline, could pass for "Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me"-era Cure (the letter-by-letter spelling of the song's title toward the end, similar to that in the chorus of the Cure's "Fire In Cairo", leads me to believe that the the ressemblance is no accident). Continuing the 80's theme, "Save Me" sounds like the Magnetic Fields covering songs on Fleetwood Mac's "Tango In the Night". Elsewhere, those who crave a noisier Xiu Xiu should be pleased with "Bishop, Ca", whose Kraftwerkian intro ("Franz Schubert" or more accurately, Rising High label ambient as immortalized on the early 90's "Chill Out Or Die" comps, or even better, Depeche Mode's "Waiting For the Night") does nothing to foreshadow the nightmare that accompanies its friendly "walla walla hey" chorus.
I have a CD by composer Martin Janicek, and on one of the pieces he plays a bent piece of thin plank wood held taut in its position by strings, creating echoey drones from its complicated vibrations. The final track on "The Air Force" is called "Wig Master" and to me it sounds a lot like that Martin Janicek piece. By this point (the entire record is a wonderously brief 34 minutes), I already have a million things to think about and that's before I get hit with the line "I'm gonna spank your ass so hard you're gonna hate the Wig Master, but I'll put two pillows on your dining room chair." Excuse me?