Favorite Tracks: “Girl With Basket of Fruit,” “It Comes Out as a Joke,” “Ice Cream Truck,” “Mary Turner Mary Turner,” “Normal Love”
Founded by San Jose’s Jamie Stewart in 2002, Xiu Xiu can really only be properly described as less a band and more an experimental music collective. Featuring a rotating cast of partners and other musicians, Xiu Xiu has been cranking out cutting-edge and forward-thinking experimental music of various tones and styles for the better part of two decades. The group’s last two full-length projects, 2016’s PLAYS THE MUSIC OF TWIN PEAKS and 2017’s FORGET, were both steps in a more accessible direction for Stewart and friends, but that all goes out the window in 2019. With GIRL WITH BASKET OF FRUIT, Xiu Xiu takes a complete 180-degree turn back in the other direction, releasing perhaps one of their boldest and most avant-garde records to date.
Now counting percussionist Thor Harris, of the legendary experimental rock band Swans, among their membership, GIRL WITH BASKET OF FRUIT is loud, abrasive, scattered, and chaotic. Harnessing a stunning volume of unbridled emotional energy, the music of this record sets a demented and pitch-dark background for Stewart’s spoken word-adjacent lunatic lyrical ramblings, a 21st century Captain Beefheart come to bring some truly manic energy back to the realm of contemporary music. With a deluge of various sonic assaults on the listener, songs like the opening title track and “Ice Cream Truck” somehow contort themselves into something resembling a groove upon which Stewart spits his bile-soaked poetry, sounding like they belong on a futuristic update of TROUT MASK REPLICA. The instrumentation on these songs runs a massive variety, ranging from clanging bells to dissonant string samples to otherworldly synthetic sounds without a clear origin. Other tracks, such as “It Comes Out as a Joke” and “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy,” openly display the influence of fellow NorCal experimental titans like clipping. and Death Grips, dominated by suffocating bass drones, elements of noise and musique concrete, heavy doses of electronic tampering, and overblown drums clipping out of the mix. The experience of listening to much of this material is disorienting and not always pleasant, but it never fails to summon strong emotions, even visceral physical reactions at times.
For as intense and overwhelming as this album can be, it also manages to occasionally find sincere moments of a sort of twisted beauty. “Amargi ve Moo” finds Stewart taking cues from such artists as Nick Cave and Anohni, delivering an overwrought and impassioned vocal performance over a swirling cesspool of bowed double bass notes, eventually devolving into literal babbling as the bass notes rise and fall in intensity. “The Wrong Thing” substitutes synthesizers for the bowed double basses, eventually building to a dissonant and apocalyptic, almost demonic, climax. Even the more tender and heartfelt moments on this album are badly stained with an enveloping darkness, which is perfectly clear on the closer “Normal Love.” Perhaps the closest thing that this album has to a properly melodic and standardly structured song, “Normal Love” runs at an extremely reduced tempo, and features some of the most plainly stated and pointed lyrics on the record, ending the record with the forlorn beseechment: “Just let me pretend I have nothing to lose.”
Now, there is one song in particular that I must devote some time to: “Mary Turner Mary Turner,” perhaps the most disturbing and emotionally affecting song in the entire Xiu Xiu discography, a discography that is by no means lacking for disturbing material. Replete with absolutely overpowering bass drones and abstract and threatening percussion, “Mary Turner Mary Turner” revisits, in explicit and gruesome detail, the savage and inhumane 1918 lynching of an eight-months-pregnant black woman. It is difficult to adequately describe with mere written words the experience of this song. It is claustrophobic, evocative, and several degrees too real for anything even remotely approaching comfort. The extent to which this song captures and lays bare even just a small fraction of the pain and terror that Mary Turner was subjected to that day is so powerful and so horrifyingly on-the-nose that it becomes legitimately sickening. It is a staggering artistic statement that forces every listener to stare their own humanity directly in the face and deeply reflect on some of the reprehensible atrocities that are not so far in our past as we might like to tell ourselves they are.
GIRL WITH BASKET OF FRUIT is a devastating and boundary-annihilating record that, to me, stands as the single best record of the year so far, as early as it may be. The degree to which this album is able to harness such a wide-reaching array of emotions and sounds and distill them into a brazen display of both sonic brutality and an unsettling and eerie grace is not just impressive, but truly unique to this band. In only nine songs and about 36 minutes, Xiu Xiu have assembled here a harrowing and challenging listening experience that will put even the most hardened and adventurous listeners to the test, while also remaining deeply rewarding and richly detailed. This record shines not just in its progressive and groundbreaking attitude towards sound, nor just in its complex and layered emotional palette, but in the way that it turns these tools inward, and sometimes against some of the deepest wounds in the collective human psyche.