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Posted on June 16th, 2014 (9:00 am) by Arman Avasia

Jamie Stewart's Xiu Xiu make desperate music for desperate people. They title their albums with names like Knife Play or Dear God, I Hate Myself. Their music is delicate but dissonant and while it frequently deals with emotional distances between people, the relationship of the band with the listener is uncomfortably intimate. Listening to a Xiu Xiu album is an act that leaves you more vulnerable and more afraid but also more alive. Xiu Xiu's latest album, Unclouded Sky, leaves you with all these feelings but is also rich in the rarest quality in Stewart's music: the hope for redemption.

The (relative) optimism of Unclouded Sky probably has something to do with the source material. The record is a fifty-fifty split between covers of various Caribbean and American folk songs and hymns and an assortment of ambient field recordings Stewart made while in Guyana. Stewart organizes the album by alternating between the two types of song. It's a simple pattern and in the hands of another artist, it could easily be gimmicky or overly tidy but Stewart has made a living out of messy music. The manner in which the songs are assorted create a sort of symmetry and sense of order that's normally missing from Stewart's work. Stewart's music is often characterized by its spastic, almost schizophrenic sense of perception; Unclouded Sky is as close to a unified vision as he has ever gotten.

Make no mistake though: this is a Xiu Xiu album. The hymns are hopeful, but the hope comes from the despair fueling Stewart's quavering voice. On "I'll Fly Away," Stewart manages to make one of our greatest gospel songs sound almost like a suicide lament. He sings the line, "when I die / Hallelujah," with just a little too much exuberance, especially since the following declaration of "I'll fly away" is far more muted, as Stewart tends to be. Thankfully, his exuberance doesn't always appear to have a morbid undertone. "Church In the Wildwood" is a genuinely ecstatic song reminiscing on an idyllic childhood. It hits that note of unfettered joy we've come to expect from gospel.

There's not much going on in the ambient songs. Given the spiritual nature of the album, it seems like they're a space for the listener to reflect but there are too many of them and it makes the album drag at times. Still, this is a fascinating record from one of music's most consistently transformative artists. While it's probably not going to make its way onto any list of Xiu Xiu's best albums, but it's a welcome and ample reminder that Jamie Stewart is one of the most inventive and intriguing artists of his generation.

Track List:

  1. (Demerara)
  2. Blood of the Lamb
  3. I'll Fly Away
  4. (Kaieteur)
  5. Lonesome Valley
  6. (Essequibo)
  7. Wreck on the Highway
  8. (Rupununi)
  9. Church in the Wildwood
  10. (Cuyuni)
  11. Unclouded Sky
  12. (Kanuku)
  13. All Fo' You
  14. (Guiana)
  15. Let the Lower Lights Be Burning
  16. (Pomeroon)
  17. Just As I Am
Xiu Xiu: Unclouded Sky
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

71 / 100
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