Xiu Xiu

La Forêt

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As conceptual as Xiu Xiu's fusion of post-punk, gamelan, synth pop, folk, and noise might seem, the group's music never feels overly cerebral or detached. On the contrary, it's usually brimming over with often contradictory emotions: love, hate, sex, violence, fear, and humor cling together so tightly in Jamie Stewart's songs that they can't be separated. Harsh and beautiful words and sounds remain intertwined on La Foret, which ranks among Xiu Xiu's subtlest, and scariest, albums. Stewart and company trade the deceptively bouncy electronics of 2004's Fabulous Muscles for a more subdued but eclectic backdrop that includes vibraphone, autoharp, and harmonium as well as the more expected keyboards and guitars. The folk and classical elements explored on earlier work like Knife Play and Fag Patrol resurface, beginning on La Foret's opening track, "Clover." Delicate acoustic guitars, vibraphone, and double bass play an aching, hesitant melody, while Stewart intones, "Don't don't don't walk like my single hope/I can only say it so many times," mining the song's pauses for all the beauty and pain that they're worth. Later, "Ale"'s clarinets -- which make the song sound like a kissing cousin to Björk's "Anchor Song" -- add to the air of barely restrained heartbreak and disgust. The scary-pretty synth pop of "Muppet Face" is the closest the album comes to the typical Xiu Xiu sound (if there is such a thing), and shows off Stewart's expressive beat programming. La Foret may be more delicate and less immediate than some of Xiu Xiu's other work (especially Fabulous Muscles), but at its best, it may have even more impact because of that. Though there aren't any songs quite as bluntly confrontational as "Support Our Troops Oh!," there are still plenty of unflinching moments, even if they're couched in imagery borrowed from childhood, nature, mythology, and fairytales. "Mousey Toy" compares a callously casual seduction to a cat's plaything, while "Pox" is filled with poetic insults ("This plastic coffin always in the shade of your sickening daughters and your idiotic hobbling wife/This is where I live/Community college is waiting for them") that sting even more because they take a while to unravel. Stewart also remains as political as ever: "Saturn" buries horrible threats under layers of industrial static and noise, and it's not hard to guess who the George mentioned in the song might be. As accomplished as it is, La Foret lags a little bit toward the end -- "Dangerous You Shouldn't Be Here" feels like a poem that shouldn't have been set to music, and "Yellow Raspberry"'s strident shouting works against its thoughtful, detailed lyrics. Even more than some of the group's other albums, La Foret seems guided by dream logic, flowing and crashing unexpectedly. And, like a dream, Xiu Xiu's music is unique, difficult to describe, and utterly compelling once you give yourself over to it.

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