Written by Connor Shannon
RIYL: The Microphones, Swans, Animal Collective, Tim Hecker, Death Grips, Merzbow
Favorite Tracks: 1, 2, 5, 8
Xiu Xiu (pronounced Shoe Shoe) is not a group for the faint of heart. Originating from San Jose in 2002 under frontman Jamie Stewart, the band has a long and colorful history of releases that defy definition and constantly push listeners out of their comfort zone. Their albums often deal with darker subject matters – sex, self-loathing, and especially depression – and their production, with its heavy noise, drone, and glitch influences, can leave the listener feeling disoriented and anxious. While to some this may seem hardly appealing, the case has been made many times that Xiu Xiu’s music is not necessarily meant to be enjoyed, but to be experienced.
This group has a long track record of so-called “experiences” that were released upon an audience that was not always ready for them, and this has led some to argue that Xiu Xiu lacks real artistic value because these “experiences” often appear to operate solely off of basic shock tactics. The list is exhaustive: their second studio album depicts a fully nude man on the album art, the album following is simply named Fag Patrol, and perhaps most infamously, a 2010 music video by the group featured three uninterrupted minutes of the group’s keyboardist forcing herself to vomit. From the outside looking in, it may be difficult to qualify these as artistic expressions, but the band firmly believes in and adheres to the idea of using shock as a way to create art. The aforementioned music video was for the title track of their upcoming album Dear God, I Hate Myself, and Angela Seo, the featured keyboardist, heavily defended the video’s content as an expression of her exposure to eating disorders like bulimia. Despite criticism, Xiu Xiu has been able to walk the line between beauty and vulgarity masterfully, and does so once again with their latest release.
Girl with Basket of Fruit, released February 8th, 2019, is a fairly contemporary release by Xiu Xiu’s standards. By normal standards, it is 36 minutes of aural whiplash, violently jerking the listener around with periodic interludes of spoken word ballads before tearing off once more into a pounding, glitchy beat. At many times it feels similar to the experience offered by Daughters’ release last year, both sharing an oppressively foreboding atmosphere built around their punchy snares, arrhythmic bass drums, and all manner of percussive melodies. However, these two differ crucially in lyrical presentation. Where You Won’t Get What You Want was a structured nightmare of dark environments and people, Stewart’s “vocals” are a hysterical mess. He babbles incoherently, spouting nonsense words and phrases over increasingly heavy percussion, and at no point does the listener feel like they are being given room to breathe. Here are just a few examples:
She sits on a bicycle and floats in space
She is in love with The Angel of Stop Laughing
When The Life Promiser makes her say any word
It comes out as a joke
He is not a good guest
The cutlass is a more excellent guest
A pig wearing a maid’s apron and cap
Riding a tomato on rubber wheels
It looks at its pocket watch and points a hoof
“You go to The World of Unborn”
Bl-bl-bl, bl-bl-bl, bl-bl-bl
Bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl, bl-bl, bl-bl, bl-bl
(this is not a joke)
This isn’t to say that the album is completely devoid of meaning. From open to close, Girl with Basket of Fruit reeks overwhelmingly of anxiety, more specifically as a fantastic expression of being anxious. Track 5 in particular does make some very clear references to social anxiety and fears of not fitting in, while track 4 takes an abstract glance at rape. The desperation in Stewart’s voice alone on tracks 1 and 2 is enough to make the listener shudder as he shouts empty words over unsettlingly violent drums before devolving into static. Some elements of anxiety are coded into the instrumentation itself – track 4 is especially of notice as its brief use of strings cut in and out of the track without warning. By far the most essential element of all is the heavy and varying percussion that bleeds out of every single track on this record. Track 5 alone contains at least 10 different percussive instruments that warble all throughout the song, fighting each other for prominence, while the underlying bassline grows louder and louder as the track progresses. Track 8 mimics the style of the overarching bassline as a medley of instruments and samples compete for the listener’s attention while the track dips further and further away from a recognizable melody. Humanlike screams are also utilized as a sort of instrument, in addition to other noises that range from commonplace, like the jingling of keys, to the downright disturbing, with sounds that seem to crunch and gurgle. All of this blends into a disturbing depiction of fear and madness as Stewart belts out track after track of manic chaos while making no attempt to pause.
There is another track on this record that I feel is significant enough on its own to talk about alongside this review; track 7, “Mary Turner Mary Turner” (tw: graphic violence, death). The track is named for the eponymous woman who is known only for the atrocities committed against her and 12 others in May of 1918. After decrying the lynching of her husband, Turner fled from a mob until she was captured on May 19th. She was subsequently tied to a tree by her ankles and set on fire before her stomach was cut open, allowing her unborn child to fall to the ground where its head was then crushed underneath a boot. Finally, the mob fired hundreds of bullets into her, then left the woman with her child in a grave marked by an empty whiskey bottle. This is all detailed in Stewart’s excruciatingly brutal prose; not a single breath is wasted on anything but recounting this event. It is, in a word, haunting.
What is this track trying to achieve? At a glance, it feels extremely out of place with the tone of the rest of the album; the album as a whole is certainly dark, but not to the extent of the harrowing content on this track. However, the closing stanza is the piece that recontextualizes the story of Mary Turner with the overarching theme of the record:
Fuck your guns
Fuck your war
Fuck your truck
Fuck your flag
This is a very blunt statement, but it’s made immediately clear what thoughts Xiu Xiu is exercising. “Mary Turner” is a track devoted entirely to political anxiety, and sociological anxiety as a whole; that is, anxiety and even guilt over human social structure and conventions. The retelling of the May 1918 lynchings is therefore a tool used to raise uncomfortable questions that white Americans tend to avoid. How can one argue that their flag is not a racist symbol when the men responsible for Mary Turner’s murder almost certainly flew the same flag? How can we turn a blind eye to racism when we’re just a century out from this nauseating atrocity? Why do we continue to dismiss the inherent identity of warmongering our nation proudly totes as a virtue? And, perhaps most crucially, why do we as Americans continue to perpetrate the same cycle of hatred on display here?
This song is therefore unique amongst Girl with Basket of Fruit’s tracklist for arguably being the only track to evoke introspection from the listener, and there couldn’t be a better track to do so, as its subject matter is by far the most relevant. What strikes me as just as impressive is how “Mary Turner” manages to do all of this without overshadowing the rest of the album; its place on the record is just as deserved and fitting as the other 8 tracks. It speaks for other talents of the album, those being its consistency and flow, both of which are extremely well executed. While this album has the liberty to play a little more loosely with flow since the tracklist is deliberately filled with jarring audio that isn’t meant to develop like a contemporary album, Xiu Xiu play to their strengths and therefore aren’t interested in letting their sound stagnate. For these reasons and others, this project is, frankly, unmatched in quality compared to other 2019 releases, and the emotions Xiu Xiu evokes with such a provocative cacophony of noise should set a standard for the rest of the year.
Girl with Basket of Fruit is, undoubtedly, a fantastic example of Xiu Xiu at their best, managing to not only create a piece of art that is firmly declarative, but also to allow for their audience to have their own personal experiences and connections to the work as a whole. It is truly a solid project. While the album can lull during the slower ballads, it’s the high intensity jumble of sound that really makes this record what it is. No other release this year can even compare to the absolute mania that Stewart and company are producing, and to do this while adhering to a thoughtful and coordinated tone is just remarkable. As far as post-industrial releases go, I really recommend this album; while it may not serve as a great introductory release for the genre, you also don’t need to “get” the industrial scene at all to understand what this record is doing. Whether you can claim to enjoy it or not is genuinely irrelevant, as, with all things Xiu Xiu has released, Girl with Basket of Fruit is an experience.