XXL Xiu Xiu Larsen - Dude

by Daryl Worthington Rating:9 Release Date:2012-07-02

Improvisation is a word that can send chills through my spine when attached to anything music-related. It's not that I particularly dislike artists that construct their music in this way, far from it. But it seems to lead to music that only exists in extremes, either brilliant, or ear-beating terribleness. The worst kinds of improvised music (I'm to kind to mention any specifics) is art purely for the sake of the artist and nerds who listen to it to get jollies about the instrument they themselves play.

This isn't always the case; of course; improvised music can also be the purest expression of an artists emotions or personality, in the case of, say, John Coltrane or Miles Davis, to name two obvious examples, revealing more intimacy than could ever be expressed in a well-thought-out and tightly arranged pop song. Or it can capture for the listener a specific time and place. Think of the raft of experimental and noise musicians from New York, for example Alan Licht or the SYR recordings by Sonic Youth, which capture in sound the surroundings of the artist.

Fortunately, Xiu Xiu Larsen (XXL) fall into the good end of the spectrum. 'Dude' is the third album in the collaboration between Xiu Xiu from the USA, and Italy's Larsen. The albums are constructed quickly, with songs being written from improvisations then recorded the following day. This album jumps through a crazy mix of sounds, never staying on the same idea for too long. 'Disco Chrome' for example, features horror movie organ riffs, a disco beat, and perhaps most unexpectedly, opera-style vocals. Elsewhere on the album, we get video game-style synth-lines, screaming brass freakouts in a Mats Gustafsson fashion, and the sort of drumming that is somewhere between a motorik beat and a tribal dance.

It's hard to put into words what it is that makes this album so good. The constant sense of movement is certainly an important factor. The album's centrepiece, an 18-minute-long track called 'Oi! Dude', shows this perfectly. Despite its length, it never dwells on the same idea too long. Beginning with synth drones and wobbles, and trumpet squeaks and squeals, it gradually breaks into a pounding drum-led groove. The synths and brass continue to provide a moving texture over the top. What makes the time fly is that the obvious enjoyment of the musicians in creating this long jam is successfully transmitted to the listener. When the song gets going it's almost danceable (as danceable as an 18-minute wig-out can be anyway).

The other key element of the songs is the well balanced contrast between structure and improvisation. Every piece on the album has a strong idea at its core, and the more avant-garde elements are texture to this rather than the key component. The final song, 'Vaire', is like an extreme microcosm of these two elements. Sounding like a Casiotone Gary Numan, the song is built on a simple beat, with pretty vocals and synth and guitar melodies. The seven minutes of the song are filled-out with oscillators, electronic drum sounds and drones, it constantly sounds like it's about to fly apart, but it holds together in its wonky fashion, and crucially, always stays engaging.

There's something very human about the songs on Dude. It's reminiscent of Deerhoof in that, despite the extreme nature of the music, there is a sweet, almost twee undercurrent to them. To capture this feeling in a predominantly instrumental record, written through improvisation, is a remarkable achievement.

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