Subtlety is a word not often associated with Jamie Stewart and his increasingly difficult-to-pin-down band Xiu Xiu. Since the band?s genesis (though less so in recent months) he has been hounded by critics, calling him everything from fake to immature to completely untalented. While any examination of this music at all reveals that none of those things could be further from the truth, it remains fascinating to me the way Xiu Xiu can polarize an audience. The hostility from the media powers that be subsided a great deal when Xiu Xiu released ?Fabulous Muscles?, the most common response being to gush about how wonderful songs like ?Clowne Towne? and ?I Luv the Valley OH!? are while completely ignoring the less pop-oriented moments of that album such as the absolutely crushing ?Nieces Pieces? and ?Mike?. Certainly the more ?poppy? songs are wonderful songs, but it?s only one aspect of a multi-faceted, ever-changing band? an aspect that is mostly absent from their newest outing, ?La For?t?.
Within seconds of ?Clover?, the album?s opening track, it is clear that this is a very different Xiu Xiu from the one that wrote ?Crank Heart?. Opening with guitar and singing, the middle section of ?Clover? is a duet for the divergent instruments of vibraphone and double bass and features some of the most subtle and beautiful counterpoint to appear on any ?rock? (sic) record in history. The song proceeds at its own pace ? unhurried ? with each sound fully realized before proceeding to the next. Stewart makes the ambiguous plea, ?Please please please / don?t don?t don?t / walk like my single hope / I can only say it so many times?, containing all the despair and hopelessness from previous efforts but here magnified by an equally fragile musical accompaniment. There are dozens of gorgeous and heart-wrenching moments (the Mark Hollis-inspired clarinets on ?Ale?, the absolutely perfect selection of timbre on the opening of ?Mousey Toy?) like this one throughout ?La For?t?, an album that refuses to reveal itself with only cursory plays.
Certainly there are pop songs and moments of unabashed aggression, however. Live favorite, ?Bog People? has an intensity at its climax reminiscent of the most-loved moments of ?Fabulous Muscles? and ?Muppet Face? features some truly ear-drum shattering noise, both of which standout as well as any more gentle moment. It?s just that these moments of intensity exist among an album where the overall focus is on sound, as though each selection of an instrument or sound/noise and each instance of a drum beat (or lack thereof) was slaved over, creating a virtuosic balancing act between nuance and abandon. You will find no one shouting ?THIS IS THE WORST VACATION EVER? on ?La For?t?, nor will you find such nakedness and primitiveness as on ?Fag Patrol?. There is no ?black & white? extremism on ?La For?t?, and the reason the album works so beautifully is because Jamie Stewart has found a way to create music that is as ambiguous and unattainable as the emotions contained within his pain-filled lyrics. This is exemplified no better than in the final track, ?Yellow Raspberry?. To the sound of thundering drums, resounding bells, and unidentifiable noises Stewart moans, ?what has changed is you (tell your cat too slow) / you (wanna fix him, a stray leaf) / he became a faggot just like a bunny / beating off nonstop to the escort pages / what has changed is youve (doubted) me all along.? Clearly this is not an album that expresses itself in simple terms. ?Sadness? and ?misery? are not singular feelings; they are complex amalgams that are often impossible to fully understand or explain, even to the individual experiencing them. Simply put, ?La For?t? is as uncompromising and unattainable as life itself. If that?s not the sign of a true work of art then I?ve no idea what is.
?La For?t? succumbs to no clich? or preexisting framework, making it an album that will frustrate some but will inevitably be regarded as one of the most fully realized, unique, and innovative artistic statements of the decade ? in short, a modern classic. This is, without a doubt, Jamie Stewart?s finest hour. 9/10 -- Nick Hennies (1 July, 2005)