I’ve long suspected that Jamie Stewart, the brains and bleeding heart of Xiu Xiu, could be the third member of Mates of State, exiled from their land of hetero jangle-pop to a rehab center for self-harm. In a similar vein as 2010’s Dear God, I Hate Myself, the band’s new album Always (out now on Polyvinyl) finds Xiu Xiu still wandering the freeways, subsisting on fistfuls of wild kumquats and prescription painkillers. Stewart’s voice is somewhere between a 9-1-1 call and a lullaby. The snarled monologue that comprises "I Luv Abortion" is interspersed with crashing drums and what sounds like the barking of a pissed-off dog. But Xiu Xiu thrives on contrasts, and the lush piano chords that follow on the ballad "The Oldness" find us in a different landscape altogether, with the unhinged tirade traded in for a more pensive sort of poetry: "I dreamed that I was aloft/On beating wings/The sound unlike any bird’s." The vertigo this can produce isn’t accidental. Earlier records like 2003's A Promise left more space for Stewart’s lyrics to hover (or thrash) against bandmate Angela Seo’s minimalist synth figures or pattering on a drum machine. But in the past few years, as the band’s sound has grown a bit fuller, their knack for combining melodic sentimentality with gothic discord continues to ensure that nothing ever quite settles into itself, often at a hefty emotional cost. This isn’t to say that Xiu Xiu has dispensed of whatever sparkle and romance they cultivated on albums like Women as Lovers and The Air Force. "Honey-Suckle"could pass for a bleary-eyed LCD Soundsystem B-side, while the splashy "Beauty Towne" and clubby "Gul Mudin" would be sugary enough for a big glittery dance party if it weren’t for lines like "Hell is hot, Hell is hot, Satan’s caught, Hell is hot!" For all their wacky charm, Stewart’s pop sensibilities are always subordinated to something much more dissonant and distraught, which is what Xiu Xiu does best. Always doesn’t belong in a Starbucks, but like the queasy, jittery feeling that accompanies over-caffeination, it reminds you that there might be something sick or sinister whipped inside all that froth.
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