Edward Droste, lead singer and songwriter for Grizzly Bear, and Jamie Stewart, lead singer and songwriter for Xiu Xiu, are gay men who go to dark sombre places. Droste and his Bears are more approachable. Their dreamy music displays a multilayered panache. The lyrics are still and moody. They make bedroom confessions that invite the outside world in. It’s relatable and not off-putting. Their second album, Yellow House, is chock-full of adult lullabies.
Stewart’s Xiu Xiu is a different story. Their world is a hellhole, a place were one is raped, fucked over and left discarded. The band’s fifth album, The Air Force, is what you expect. It’s as pretty as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The bleak text bleeds unapologetically over sporadic orchestrations where drill sounds and spooky sound effects haunt and get their creep on. Xiu Xiu’s bedroom confessions have no concept of subtle. There are skeletons blaring out of the closets and bodies buried in the basement.
I must say, Xiu Xiu’s latest isn’t as jarring as past efforts. But they still disturb — and bore me to tears. There’s no humour to be had or camp elements to let you breathe a bit. Maybe if you’re a bored suburban kid (or first-year art student) romanticizing about suicide and killing your parents, this album may be the ticket — a 21st-century Bell Jar.
“Boy Soprano” is a perfect example of the annoyingly trite and dramatic places Stewart goes for the sake of his art. The arrangement is a mix of intense electric drill and saw sounds, flutes and tribal drums. Stewart sings in a warbled psychotic timbre (so full of himself, it hurts). “Confide in me you don’t want to die/ Look back from the stains on my gloves/ To the stains on yours.”
“Hello From Eau Claire” is the solo vocal debut of band member CaraLee McElroy. Her voice is more straightforward and way more expressive in its subtlety. Her words swim nicely through the quirky instrumentation. “I know it’s dumb to say/ That you are on my mind,” sings McElroy, “I know it’s stupid to dream/ That you might think of me as a man.”
When I was young, The Smiths were my comfort in a dark, unfair world. So many people found Morrissey’s words and morose phrasing ultradepressing. I found it all so pleasurable and smart… fun, even. The world has changed and maybe there is humour and smartness in Xiu Xiu’s ugly world and I’m just too old and stubborn to get it now. I’m just like The Smiths haters of yore. I just can’t help it though. I hate, hate, hate Xiu Xiu.
New York-based Grizzly Bear on the other hand has made my list of favourite albums so far this year. It’s a free-flowing yet meticulously self-produced affair that drips with an enthusiastic glee for heartache and life’s complexities. It’s extremely intimate and detailed (seems meant to be blared through the headphones). Droste’s fine pleasant voice intermingles with forceful guitars, comforting banjo-picking and the most divine string arrangements (courtesy of Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett).
“Knife” starts with lazy-day guitars as breezy hypnotic voices chant and coo like some psychedelic windstorm. Drowning piano keys shyly tinkle in the background as Droste sings away. “I want you to know/ When I look into your eyes/ With every blow/ Comes another lie.”
“Marla” is an interesting tune, originally written and recorded by Droste’s great aunt Marla Forbes some 70 years ago (she drank herself to death in the ’40s). It’s similar to Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” (with a touch of Dr Seuss) in its dark brooding yet amusing content.
Pallett’s strings are a nice touch as they lurk about and wreak havoc on the charming piano and Droste’s able pipes. “I’ve looked in the attic/ The cellar and the hall/ I’ve looked in the studio/ Study and all/ I’ve looked in the chest where I thought it should be/ I’ve looked in the greenhouses/ One, two and three.”
“Plans” is my favourite track. The banjo, whistling men and clip-clopping sounds just never stop. They keep going at a steady self-assured pace as various instruments and wonky chaotic sounds weave themselves in and out. The voices get more foreboding as it goes. It’s so simple yet incredibly effective.
“All I have to give seems to be all over you and everyone else,” Droste confides. “I guess I’m guilty spreading thin with my love.” You feel as if you’re on a truly emotional journey, on a road to somewhere. Where? Who knows? That’s what is so exciting about Yellow House.