Duets are nothing new for the experimental art pop act Xiu Xiu. Frontman Jamie Stewart’s fondness for vocal collaborations can be traced back to as early as the band’s 2008 full-length, Women as Lovers, when he tapped Swans’ Michael Gira for a rousing, inspired rendition of the Queen and David Bowie single “Under Pressure”. Next year will be twenty years since Xiu Xiu formed, and what better way to mark two decades of highly emotive, frequently beautiful, occasionally abrasively noisy, and often challenging music with an album made up exclusively of duets?
OH NO opens with “Sad Mescalita”. Here, Sharon Van Etten provides a call and response with Stewart. The pairing works well. Van Etten sing-speaks just above a whisper, uttering her lines in a hesitant, staggered rhythm similar to Stewart so the two come across like a doomed Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. When Sharon and Jamie’s voices come together during the choruses, it’s a gorgeous, crashing explosion of emotion joined by crying synths that flood the space. On “I Cannot Resist”, Angela Seo plays a tempered piano underscored by lilting synths and slight effects. Here, each one of Jamie’s delicate verses is punctuated liturgically by Drab Majesty’s Deb Demure answering, “And I cannot resist.” Circuit Des Yeux’s Haley Fohr joins Jamie for “The Grifters” forgoing her usual baritone for a higher register to better compliment Stewart. “Goodbye for Good” features Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier who sounds so much like Jamie when compared with the four prior pairings, his presence is almost not needed. Still, the song is textbook Xiu Xiu, with the two singing tensely together lines like, “Plants find you disgusting, their benevolent keeper, they would grow from your cracking jaw, if they could get there.” The record’s first third is closed out with the title track that, with its quirky synthesizer lead and melodic harp, is the closest Xiu Xiu comes to pop up to this point on the record. Here, Susanne Sachsse is paired with Stewart and doesn’t so much as sing as she does speak in rapid-fire German.
The wonderful, pounding, ready-for-the-dancefloor “Rumpus Room” kicks off OH NO’s second third. A slightly distorted Angus Andrew (Liars) joins Stewart for this number that utilizes fun lyrics like, “No posture, bad posture, Flaming Hot Cheetos, Fuego Takis.” The track works well by building tension with each verse before bounding into an ultra-catchy chorus that has Stewart and Angus yelling and stomping out the song’s namesake. “Fuzz Gong Fight” is the only song on OH NO that doesn’t feature a singer from another band. Instead, Angela Seo, the other half of Xiu Xiu, provides spoken vocals on the verses with Jamie singing the moody chorus. Owen Pallett appears on “I Dream of Someone Else Entirely”, and, due mostly to their stately, elucidating delivery, manages to sound the most natural next to Stewart. Xiu Xiu covers The Cure’s “One Hundred Years” with the help of Chelsea Wolfe. It’s a wonder Stewart and company hadn’t included a recorded version of this song on any of their prior albums as it’s such an obvious influence on the band in terms of style. Stewart and Wolfe do a stunning rendition of the forty-year-old goth classic, making every moment of its six-plus-minute runtime count. “A Classic Screw” completes OH NO’s second third, and it’s here that the record sags a bit. It’s no fault of guest vocalist Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo that the song doesn’t work, it’s more that the track’s weird for weirdness’s sake composition finds it unable to grab a foothold, and with no semblance of hook or chorus to anchor it, the piece’s three minutes and nineteen seconds feel interminable.
OH NO’s problems continue into its final third with the unnecessarily long and wearisome “It Bothers Me All the Time”. Jonathan Meiburg’s (Shearwater) bland vocals do nothing to save the song, instead they render his appearance as the most forgettable one on the record. Fortunately, things begin to turn around with “Saint Dymphna”. The harmonizing between Stewart and Twin Shadowis beautiful, and the hopeful, soaring chorus only emphasizes how well the pairing works. LA punk legend Alice Bag joins Xiu Xiu for the upbeat “Knock Out”. It’s a well-placed song, and Bag does a good job of emphatically delivering Stewart’s cryptic poetry in the song’s outro. Although not technically OH NO’s last track, “A Bottle of Rum” is the album’s last song. Liz Harris (Grouper) joins Stewart here in a way somewhat reminiscent of the way Van Etten did in OH NO’s opener, except this time the pair sound optimistic.
OH NO isn’t perfect, and that’s entirely forgivable. With so many different personalities on a single album, one can see the obvious challenge in attempting to deliver a duet record that sounds consistent in song and performance quality from beginning to end. Ultimately, there’s way more good here than bad. When considering a project of this scope with a band as idiosyncratic as Xiu Xiu, that the album sounds as even as it does is remarkable. OH NO is an impressive undertaking, one that’s worth the time of Xiu Xiu fans and anyone with an adventurous ear.