Electronic

Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love

Talk about overlooked – Passion Pit, the project of Cambridge’s Michael Angelakos, had huge synthpop hits and lit up the the album of the year charts on 2009’s debut LP Manners, then failed to slump on the sophomore followup, 2012’s Gossameryet the group’s newest LP has to date only be reviewed by two blogs and has made close to zero waves on the 2017 landscape.  That’s likely because it was released for free, on YouTube of all places, and was largely produced, mixed and mastered by Angelakos himself.  In a lengthy (and slightly obnoxious) announcement, Angelakos described his process as making something quickly, with human mistakes and errors rather than polished revisions, so that he could show his true, human self.  I don’t know how much I buy the excuse of doing something hastily for authenticity’s sake, but nonetheless, Angelakos has put together a solid collection of tracks here, with very cohesive themes and ideas, and I think the project succeeds and even points in the direction of a return to form after 2015’s underwhelming Kindred.  It comes as no surprise, however, that the album’s Achilles heel is in the production.

After a swirling and bombastic opener filled with all the typical Passion Pit synths (fun, sprightly, bouncy synth lines in all directions), the album opts for its most ambitious track in the number two position, the six minute “Somewhere Up There”.  A three-parter that begins like something off Manners, the album discusses Angelakos’ depression and insecurity regarding his divorce (and subsequent public coming out), a recurring theme in Passion Pit music.  The opening passage is catchy and dynamic, but the vocal take is rough and could have used with some cleaner production or the chorus effect that Angelakos likes to frequent on his melodies.  But unmistakable is the emotion in his voice, and I think the abrupt switch up halfway through to a soaring half-time track with crescendoing vocals works.  I even think the two spoken word passages (one from Angelakos’ mentor and another in the form of a voicemail from his mother) play into the deeply personal songwriting the album is going for.

The album’s front side continues the hot streak, with both “Hey K” (another divorce track, this time sung to Angelakos’ ex-wife directly) and “You Have the Right” being cut from the same cloth as Gossamer’s R&B-tinged standout “Constant Conversations“.  The vocals are clear and crisp, and the slower tempos, clicks and soft synthesizers providing a cushion to the jagged edges of the first two tracks.  I do think the album loses some steam by opting to sequence the instrumental title track, a four minute ambient piece that resembles the waves on the record’s cover, at the halfway point, clearly breaking the album into two distinct movements.

The B side boasts the biggest issues with production.  The chopped-up and glitchy “Inner Dialogue” is a mess, neither catchy nor pleasant, and “I’m Perfect”, which is filled with energy and features an excellent chorus, suffers from the same demo-quality production that haunts the entire record.  Passion Pit music is so dense and bombastic that it benefits more than most genres from crystal clear vocals and synths, and the quick mixing that Angelakos went for truly is a detriment on songs like this.  The eighth- and ninth-sequenced “The Undertow” and “To the Otherside”, while solid and featuring good melodies and piano/keyboard riffs, fail to really get big or go in as hard as you’d like, as hard as Angelakos did on Manners favorites “Make Light” and “Sleepyhead“.  The record ends with the largely instrumental “For Sondra (It Means the World To Me)”, a swelling instrumental that ends with a bare, raw acoustic guitar and voice take that features the record’s most intimate lyrics (“But mother you knew / Your love kept on hurting me / But you’re my family / Why would you?”).  It’s an appropriate ending to a cohesive, thematic and personal record.

Tremendous Sea has a few really good tracks and I think the low-stakes project succeeds in what it was shooting for.  But excellent LP this is not, partially because it’s quite short (36 minutes, including two instrumental tracks), and partially because a couple of the tracks are weak, but mostly because it sounds like a demo.  The extra flourishes, vocal harmonies, solos, layering and impressive production touches that other Passion Pit records relish in are largely absent, leaving us with a relatively stripped back collection of songs from a project that built itself on over-the top maximalism.  Still, this record is proof that Angelakos can still write great Passion Pit songs, and it instills hope that the next LP could move the band back in the direction of their creative peak.

Score: 8 / 13

Visible Cloaks – Reassemblage

Visible Cloaks is an electronic / ambient duo based out of Portland.  Their debut full-length, Reassamblage, was released in late February, and I’ve been listening to it on and off ever since.  Like the best ambient music, it’s a subtle record, and I’ve spent close to three months trying to make heads or tales of my opinion on it.

In short, this record is really, really well-crafted.  The word ‘texture’ gets thrown around a lot in music (a friend of mine once cynically stated that people described music as ‘textured’ when they had no real opinions and were trying to sound verbose and intelligent), but it should really be reserved for albums like this one.  You really can feel all the sounds on Reassemblage, and there are a lot of them.  Synth notes, often disguised as marimbas, flutes and traditional Asian string instruments like the koto, trickle like pebbles through your hands and flutter like sticks and reads whipping your legs.  This record sounds incredibly organic.  One image that comes to mind is the surface of a pond, which, as one zooms in closer and closer, reveals itself to be teeming with life in every corner.  Another image is of a time lapse of organic life putting itself together, one step at a time, like in this video.  Both the album’s title and artwork are able descriptors.

Visible Cloaks makes excellent use of panning (placing specific sounds at various spatial locations along the left-right channels) all over the record, creating dense, colorful worlds in which a trickling chime pops up over here while a wet, splashing sound buzzes along over there.  The songs develop as a collection of disparate parts, like a series of different insect or plant species, humming along at their own unique cadence and frequency until the natural symphony reaches a breaking point, at which the songs dissipate into the sounds of shattering crystals.  Occasionally we hear voices, cloaked in chorus effects, hum and ‘oohh’ soothingly in the background.  A singular Japanese spoken word passage is presented within the empty spaces left by the gentle clanging of pipes on “Valve”. The record has a notably Japanese vibe to it, and my fiance twice asked me if I was listening to the sound track to Mushi-shi (a beautiful, calming anime that takes place in rural villages of 18th century Japan).

This is the kind of album that doesn’t lend itself to highlighting specific songs.  The ideas within each track are distinct but also make use of similar discrete pieces, and thus the work should be taken as a whole, but some moments do stand out as examples representative of what the album is doing at its best.  “Mask” lets a marimba melody build as whooshing, windswept synths envelop it further and further until it exits out of nowhere, allowing a few glimmering, glistening notes to drift about as if on a light breeze while heavily processed vocals coo softly behind.  “Bloodstream” is the record at its busiest, as rippling notes shoot in every which direction before huge, warm, earthy bass washes over the entire track.  The effect is gorgeous.  “Terrazzo” dips, bends and curls while buoyed by the mysterious sounds of a chorus of shakuhachi flutes.

Reassemblage is incredibly detailed, cohesive, pleasant and thoroughly interesting.  It represents an adept stroke of ambient song craft, and I anticipate enjoying this record at opportune times for years to come.

Score: 9/13

Actress – AZD

Actress is the pseudonym of British electronic musician Darren Cunningham, a veteran of the genre for over a decade the man behind four well-received LPs, spaced enough apart to allow Cunningham time to develop and hone in on a new idea and give each record a definitive sound.  His latest, AZD, feels cold and calculated, whirring with machinery and industrial noises to create a thematically consistent record in agreement with the record’s robotic, metallic cover artwork.

The songs on AZD are more often than not danceable and pulsating, preferring tinkling, minimalist riffs and white noise to huge moments of bass or synths.  Such is true on proper opener “Untitled 7”, a good bellwether of the album’s overall sound before fading into the followup “Fantasynth”, which loops pitched up bells alongside a dusty piano hook, all to a pumping, organic backbeat.  The track, like others on AZD, develops slowly, becoming encompassed by a subtle but steady stream of snowy noise before ending as mysteriously and unceremoniously as it began, with a simple fade out.  “Blue Window” follows a similar formula, changing its hook, tempo and murky, muffled back beat just enough to distinguish itself while remaining firmly within the sonic palette the album paints early on.  The cross fading of tracks gives the opening third a DJ set list vibe, which slowly juxtaposes itself to the standalone, more conceptual tracks that appear as the record progresses.

“CYN” is the album’s first detour, going with a heavier, more dynamic arrangement that brings in various buzzsaws, theremins and organs built around intense 90s hip hop and spoken word samples.  The song dissipates quickly and is picked up by “X22RME”, which, as the title suggests, is the heaviest song on the record, mixing darker techno with Classixx-like triplet arpeggios before going full-throttle on the fuzz and noise.  “Runner” concludes the album’s second phase with a driving beat, insistent synth instrumentation and a flurry of static that masks human conversation, distorting it to sound completely artificial.

The final third of “AZD” begins with the ambient “Falling Rizlas”, a delicate piece of music lacking in a rhythmic beat and featuring synthetic string arrangements and deep bass around snowy chimes.  The track is beautiful and serves as an eye of the hurricane before “Dancing in the Smoke” affronts the listener with a hail of glitchy, clashing, squealing synths, ray guns and broken glass.  Experimental and occasionally intriguing, the track nonetheless feels chaotic and claustrophobic.  “Faure in Chrome” is the album’s climax, a dramatic string piece that features the ingratiating sound of metallic welding and buzzing, not far from the sound of a dentist’s drill into teeth.  It sounds like the soundtrack to fatal robotic surgery, and I can appreciate the conceptual nature of the song, which feels related to the story on the cover art, but the high pitched buzzing is just too unpleasant for me to enjoy listening through it.  The record closes with the mysterious, alien come-down “There’s an Angel in the Shower” and “Visa”, an uptempo, nostalgic techno throwback that doesn’t make a lot of sense sequencing wise, sort of reminding me of a bonus single or deluxe track tacked onto the album’s end.

I think AZD develops a signature sound early and provides a solid mix of minimalist production and catchy, dancey hooks, but its indulgence into clashing, grating and wholly unenjoyable experimentation on the back end is a huge downer and a strike against the album for me.  I think there was a great idea behind these dark, metallic tracks, and I can see a record that does such a concept beautifully, but AZD is not it.  The center of the record, while fine, isn’t as strong as the first third, and I think the end truly is a sequencing mishap, as “Angel in the Shower” works better than anything else here as the closer (though clearly Actress felt otherwise).  There are good ideas and a deft hand behind AZD, but the record itself feels like a missed opportunity.

Score: 6/13

 

Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

Kelly Lee Owens is a Welsh artist who has previously released electronic remixes and singles, as well as an EP, to positive critical reviews.  Her debut self-titled album is a ten-track album of minimalist electronic and techno music, often featuring her own vocals.

The album is a pleasant enough listen, and the tracks operate well both alone and within the context of the record.  The production is soft but very minimalist, similar to the cover artwork.  The synths don’t weave and flourish in color, but rather bounce around on a single greyscale note or two, with Owens vocals nearly always present but soft and airy, as if they’re dipping out of the way.  There is only one featured vocalist, Jenny Hval on “Anxi” (though her stylings fit naturally alongside Owens’).  But I find myself lacking any unique concept, arc or sonic identity to grasp onto.  The album flows like water, refreshing, but tasteless.

There are nice moments.  The bounce of “Anxi”, its strings and intermixing vocal harmonies, and melodic change of pace (although I’d hesitate to call it a chorus) make it the most exciting song here.  “CBM” pulses with a “Strobe“-like anxiousness, and sounds like it could be a great intro for an EDM banger but opts for a swift departure.  And the slow, trip-hop beat and buzzing effects surrounding Owens’ high pitched melody on the penultimate “Keep Walking” give the song a darker, eerier vibe than what precedes it.

But on a lot of these tracks, it sounds like there are few, if any, interesting ideas that warrant a full track devoted to what is typically a simple, unchanging drum beat, a bouncing bass, some wordless, reverb-washed vocals, and the occasional synth or string picking out a murky chord here and there.  Closer “8”, which is the ‘industrial’ track, is a 10-minute slog that never really progresses or makes for compelling and beautiful ambient music, either.  Ditto for the jangling, Purity Ring rattle of “Bird” or the second sequenced “Arthur”, which uses Owens’ “Oohhhs” as an instrument nestled within rivers of bass and drum machine, that make for pretty but underwritten and unexciting ambient music.  “Evolution” is the only song on here I really think is a mistake, as Owens whispers the message-less “Be the / see the / evolution / revolution” (yeah, you aren’t the first one to realize those words rhyme) ad-nauseum.

Although Kelly Lee Owens is far from offensive, its also pretty unimaginative and uninteresting.  This is no pop/minimalist techno hybrid, its just kind of there.  It’s fine.  I don’t really think anyone who fails to hear it is missing anything.

Score:  6/13

Arca – Arca

April 7th was a day marked on my proverbial calendar since the beginning of the year, because it was the release date for the new Father John Misty album.  I had long speculated that that 80 minute LP would be among the strongest records not just of 2017, but of the decade.  While I’m still figuring out exactly how I feel about it, it’s safe to say it wasn’t exactly the 100% slam dunk I was expecting.  However, another release from April 7th has taken me by complete surprise and is currently my pick for the high water mark this year in music.

Arca is the artistic pseudonym of Venezuelan Alejandro Ghersi, who was educated in New York and is now based out of London.  After releasing a string of very well-received electronic releases over the past three years, united by their dark, unsettling production and red and black, fleshy, creepy aesthetic, as well as producing for Bjork, Kanye, FKA Twigs and even Frank Ocean, the twenty-six year-old has returned with his strongest LP to date, and one that sets itself apart from his discography by heavily featuring his own vocals, sung entirely in his native Spanish.

Arca is an immersive album, incredibly detailed and layered, made by one of the best and most inventive electronic producers in the game in his absolute prime.  The songs are very carefully arranged, abstract, surrealist soundscapes, but they never feel cluttered.  There aren’t a million synths holding out single notes.  Ghersi is careful to leave plenty of open space, especially on the record’s slower, more ambient tracks.  There is almost no percussion, no drum machine.  This is not a dance album in the slightest.  The songs are longing and romantic, and Spanish is the perfect language to encapsulate the torture and beauty present in the themes.  With almost no harmonies or vocal overdubs, Ghersi’s singular voice, covered in natural echo and reverb, sounds like it’s coming straight out of an ancient stone monastery or cathedral.

Kicking off with ‘Piel’, which features only some high pitched notes alongside Gerhi’s soft, surprisingly capable falsetto, he sings of wishing to shed his skin and awake a new person, a sentiment perhaps reflective of his struggle to come out as gay.  Deep bass envelops the vocals in the song’s final third, and we’re on to standout ‘Anoche’, which features a lyric sheet and vocal performance that feels like it could have come out of an 18th century Spanish opera.  “Anoche yo soñé Nuestra muerte simultánea / Anoche yo lloré / De felicidad, qué extraño me sentí [Last night I dreamt / Of our simultaneous death /Last night I cried / Out of happiness]” he sings as shuffling rhythms, compiled from unknowable instruments, mingle with delicate pianos.  The record then moves to ‘Saunter’, which hisses, crackles and squeals from all sides before Ghersi comes through with a stronger, more defiant vocal performance, reiterating a line from ‘Piel’: “Quítame la piel de ayer [Take my skin off from yesterday]”.

The record delves further into dark, explosive, industrial territory on ‘Urchin’, which sounds like a steam-punk-esque, underwater factory pumping out synth blast after blast.  Lonely pianos take back the reigns briefly before the song erupts in an epic climax.  ‘Urchin’ is also one of several purely instrumental tracks, which offer a chance for Ghersi to put certain impressive production tricks and instrumental effects front and center.  ‘Reverie’ (which comes with a rather artistic and unsettling music video), doesn’t let up on the gas, again delving into bombastic, devastating territory with each crackling fourth beat bigger and more expansive than the last.  ‘Castration’ is pummeling, offering tense anticipation in the form of zig-zagging synths before destroying the listener with a flurry of beats that arrive like jabs to the face.

The midpoint of the record is ‘Sin Rumbo’, which offers a breather of sorts.  The airy production, while still plenty terrifying, makes way for Ghersi’s incredible operatic skills, as he reaches higher and higher to sing still longingly about unrequited love: ‘Desde la distancia te añoraré / Camino sin rumbo [From a distance I will yearn for you / I walk aimlessly]”.  The follow-up, ‘Coraje’, continues in this vein, opting for sparse, celestial synths and vibraphone variants to accompany the record’s most bizarre and surreal vocal performance.

The eye of the hurricane of the record’s center is immediately displaced by the album’s most abrasive track, ‘Whip’, which very prominently features the ominous and frightening sound of whips cracking all over the sound spectrum.  The record falls onto a climax of sorts with ‘Desafío’, one of the most insisting and melodic tracks, and one with an honest to goodness verse-chorus structure.  Followup ‘Fugaces’ continues in this anthemic style, and is even uplifting in the face of the album’s continuing theme of pining for a lover from a past so distant it feels more like a dream, with Ghersi singing “Que desilusión / Que solo me quedan / Recuerdos fugaces / Tus ojos de luto [What a disappointment / That I only have / Fleeting memories / Your eyes of mourning“.  The penultimate ‘Miel’ is somber and pleading, the final chance Gerhi takes to speak to the object of his affections, before the record ends with the beautiful, glitchy ‘Child’, the musical soundtrack to walls of stained-glass shattering into a million pieces in slow motion.

If Arca was purely instrumental, it would still be a triumph.  The fact that Ghersi has such a wonderful voice, which so well accommodates his haunting, harrowing music, and sings in a language that does so well to express feelings of sadness, love and disillusionment, sets this record far apart from all his emotional ambient counterparts.  Add in the fact that the album is thematic and features two distinctive sides – the challenging and riveting front, the grandiose and atmospheric back – and you have the makings one of the year’s best albums and a new name to place at the top of the genre, if he wasn’t already there. This is one of the best producers in the game taking a compositional risk that pays off massive dividends while failing to compromise what garnered his acclaim in the first place.  My only gripe with the record is the feeling that the more engaging production work on the front side sets the bar so high that the slower, come-down back side is slightly less exciting.  That aside, Arca is excellent, and I very highly recommend it.

Score: 11 / 13

Sampha – Process

This Sampha album, his debut full-length, is great.  There’s not a bad song on here, Sampha does interesting things vocally and from a production standpoint, and his lyrics are thoughtful and personal while staying wrapped in deep metaphors and double meanings.  And because it vaguely fits into the ever-expanding genre of R&B (with Sampha’s sound tinted more by synthesizers and effects ala Frank Ocean or fellow British contemporary James Blake), the songs are pleasant, melodic and listenable as background, dinner-party music in addition to being compelling close listens.  And with close listens comes the revelation that this is very much an album about grief.

Like many, I first heard of Sampha through his vocal work on SBTRKT’s wonderful first album.  His voice has been compared, favorably, to James Blake (and for good reason), but Sampha can dig into softer, more personal territory, and it shines through on some of Process‘s best tracks.  After kicking off with the building, atmospheric “Plastic 100° C”, which extends an outer space metaphor to include spoken-word Neil Armstrong samples and blast-off noises, the album finds true form in second sequenced “Blood on Me”.  Sampha has spoken extensively about where the song’s anxious, paranoid lyrics come from, and the trip-hop drum beat, rattling cowbells, jangling piano and panting vocal harmonies serve to build a nightmare surrounding Sampha’s voice, which sounds like it’s running through the song, losing breath, as he sings “I swear they smell the blood on me / I hear them coming for me!”  This attention to detail, to be sure that all elements of the song contribute to its lyrical themes, are part of what puts Process a cut above its peers.

Ditto for “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, which, after the claustrophobia of the first three tracks, takes the album into minimalist piano-ballad territory.  Sampha is singing about how “Know one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home”, therefore the song is stripped back and the piano is featured prominently, not doused in effects but sounding like it’s coming straight out of his mother’s home.  But the piano is a greater metaphor for Sampha’s late mother’s love, as he sings on the chorus “You know I left, I flew the nest / And you know I won’t be long”.  The album continues with another stark piano ballad, the two-minute, “Take Me Inside”, to finish the front side, before switching gears again with “Reverse Faults”.  The track uses reversed synthesizers to engineer a beat over which Sampha rattles off metaphors about his own faults – “Took the brake pads out the car / and I flew”, “I shot the blame and it scattered / Now there’s bullt holes spread across the walls”.

Across the album, Sampha sings with an anxious edge, worried less by the actions of others but by his own potential to fall apart, and it isn’t a stretch to suggest he is haunted by the recent losses of his parents.  Never is this more apparent than on “Blood on Me”, but on the second half “Under”, Sampha buries himself under a chorus of vocal harmonies chanting “under” as he sings “Waves come crashing over me, I’m somewhere in open sea/ I’m gasping for air”.  “Timmy’s Prayer” follows suit, a writing colab. with Kanye that takes the latter’s penchant for big, slow-jam drum beats and pairs it with Sampha’s séance-inspired address to his late parents – “If ever you’re listening, if heaven’s a prison / Then I am your prisoner”.

The record concludes with its most ambient track, “What Shouldn’t I Be”, which lacks percussion and is led by harp and soft, spacey synthesizers.  The track ends the record in the present, as Sampha sings “I should visit my brother / But I haven’t been there in months / I’ve lost connection, signal / To how we were”.  This album does not end on a happy, forward-looking, cathartic note.  Rather, Sampha is just as unsure as ever, singing “Family ties / Put them ’round my neck.”  The album title seems to refer to Sampha’s process of coping with his grief, or processing what has happened in his life, but the record’s fleeting happy moments occur only in the past, and the process seems, at the moment, to be ongoing.

Tight thematically, sad but intriguing lyrically, well-arranged and well-sequenced, Process is certainly a success.  I kind of want the record to perhaps take a few more risks, include a few more high energy tracks ala “Blood on Me”, and shoot for some bigger, more bombastic, grandiose moments, but given the content that inspired the lyrics, those moves might not have suited the record’s emotional palette.  Still, I anticipate this cracking many a year-end list, and for good reason – Sampha has delivered one of the best albums of the young year.

Score: 10/13

Xiu Xiu -Forget

Note:  This review was originally published on the Berkeley BSide.  You can check it out (along with the rest of the site) over here.

Xiu Xiu, led by South Bay native and creative genius Jamie Stewart, are one of the most interesting, refreshing, consistently abrasive, and unpredictable bands this side of Death Grips. In some ways, they are to synthpop what Death Grips are to rap–very coarsely a member of the genre, but riding multitudes of innovative and what some might call ‘inaccessible’ production techniques, combined with an extremely emotional vocalist and a prolific work ethic. Their last effort, 2016’s Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, is one of the most beautiful but downright harrowing albums I’ve ever heard, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for exciting, avant-garde instrumental music (with a few amazing vocal performances thrown in).

The record’s opening seconds are perhaps its most off-putting, as Jamie raps in a fast, aggressive voice “You wanna see it/ you wanna tick it / wanna lick it wanna kiss it you wanna whisper in my ear, bitch?” “The Call” thus rides along at a breakneck pace and Stewart delivers evocative lyrics in his trademark operatic, vibrato-heavy style regarding the desire to be wanted and loved by an emotionally abusive partner, and the rap voice that returns of a chorus of “Clap, bitches!” appears to represent the aggressor. The narrative technique is masterfully employed, but the question with Xiu Xiu is never “can they be interesting?,” but always “how much do these experiments take away from the enjoyment of the record?” “The Call” straddles that line, but I think the lack of a great melody tips it in the wrong direction.  Forget is the band’s 10th (!) LP in fifteen years, and while it incorporates some of the elements from Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, the LP also sees the band return to some of their more familiar sonic and lyrical elements. Forget feels like a breakup record, but helmed by a songwriter as tortured and manic as Stewart, the record could potentially be alluding to numerous personal relationships in his life. Perhaps it could even serve as a metaphor for the struggles of others. The songwriting nonetheless sounds pained and personal, as do almost all Xiu Xiu releases. The sonics are still jarring, the structures eerie, off-kilter, unexpected. There are no shortage of surprising, almost jump scare-like moments on Forget and the record holds onto lyrical themes, including learning to forget a bad relationship, and relearning how to not hate oneself after years of emotional abuse.

“Queen of the Losers” ups the production intensity, with huge, climactic industrial rhythms, metallic and squirming synthesizers exploding all around, a whole host of indescribable sounds, and a characteristically fierce Stewart performance. “What’s your name? Fucking nothing,” he repeats in the songs outro, reinforcing the idea of forgetting oneself, or some previous version of oneself. The record’s best song, “Get Up,” dials back the intensity for a sweet melody and some of the most straightforward lyrics on the record, with Stewart singing, perhaps to a parent, “A piano fell on my face / you told me to get up / Do you hate me / Because I seem so stupid?”  The song maintains a delicate balance: always teetering on the edge of a climax the way a nervous person teeters on the edge of a breakdown, and when it’s finally delivered, it does not disappoint, kicking off with Stewart yelling “You’re the only reason I was born!” a line that is at once simple and extremely difficult to parse.

Similarly, the record’s best songs are the one’s where Xiu Xiu can strike a balance between melodicism, exciting production theatrics, and raw intensity, like lead single “Wondering”, which couples a wonderfully catchy chorus with anthemic vocal harmonies. The second half of the album pushes more in an electro pop direction (it’d be a stretch to call Xiu Xiu music dancy), to mostly positive results.  The title track moves between sections of vibrant but ominous synthesizers, acoustic guitars, industrial rhythms and Stewart’s insane, pleading chorus of “Forget!  Forget!” “At Last, At Last” juxtaposes stripped back verses with choruses that sound like an EDM show inside a haunted house, while the penultimate “Petite” takes a break from the electronics and grind for a pretty, but unnerving acoustic and string ballad that Jamie has stated (in this great Tiny Mix Tapes interview) deals in subjects as dark as sex trafficking.  It then links to the closer, “Faith, Torn Apart,” which combines an airy, almost middle eastern instrumental suite with churning, marching beats and unsettling spoken word lyrics (“What do you want me to do? I want you to kill me.  Crushed to death)” before a creepy, haunting poetic finish read by notable queer writer and artist Vaginal Davis, listing attributes of child sex workers whose photos Stewart came across online.

The record is another solid Xiu Xiu release, as they proves once again that so long as you wield a weapon as powerful as Jamie Stewart’s singing voice, it’s hard to go wrong.  At the same time, I feel that the band is treading familiar waters, tragic as that territory may be, without breaking through to new and exciting sonic territory, as they did on Plays the Music of Twin Peaks.  Nonetheless, as long as the Chainsmokers are topping the charts, it’s comforting that you can still reliably grab a handful of new Xiu Xiu songs secure in the knowledge that you’ll still be treating yourself to some emotionally disturbed nightmares for as long as you engage in Stewart’s fucked-up world.

Score: 9/13