From a purely musical point of view, Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg and Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart are quite similar, more so than would appear at first glance. Both front artful indie rock outfits rife with darkness and abstraction, and both do so with incredibly emotional deliveries. Yet as public personas go, the two couldn’t be more different. While Meiburg is a more mild-mannered sort, focusing strongly on ornithological and other scholarly pursuits, Stewart is a provocateur, detailing his songs with intensely personal details, creating visual art and chocolate, and smoking hair and selling his urine (for a good cause!). Yet that contrast, paired with their like-minded aesthetics, does seemingly make for a fascinating pairing, and the two artists’ new project, Blue Water White Death, smashes together Stewart and Meiburg’s differing approaches in interestingly bizarre fashion.
Named for a documentary about a team of shark finders, and depicting a strange sea creature on its cover, Blue Water White Death’s debut album initially comes across more along the lines of Meiburg’s historical and zoological conceits. Yet its titles – “This Is The Scrunchyface of My Dreams,” “Rendering the Juggalos” – practically screams Stewart’s absurdist shock art. But these minor aesthetic details aside, the two make for surprisingly natural collaborators. In fact, it can often be hard to figure out where one singer ends and the other begins. Stewart, for instance, is the distorted vocalist on “Scrunchyface,” but at the right angle, he could just as easily be Meiburg, particularly underneath the waves of noise and strings that submerge his pipes.
For a pair of artsy types like these two, however, Blue Water White Death is especially abstract. Most of the eight compositions are less like pop songs and more like ambient exercises, albeit ones with vocals and sometimes impeccably pieced structures. Yet these aren’t melodies that pop or flash to the listener, but rather seep from headphones and bleed out like overturned buckets of chum. At times, as on “Song for the Greater Jihad” and “Grunt Tube,” these tunes can easily pass for Shearwater or Xiu Xiu tracks, respectively. But it’s where the lines blur that the album becomes more interesting. The tense, gorgeously haunting “Nerd Future” is a particular standout, driven by Meiburg’s vocals but with Stewart’s sense of alluring terror, including some particularly jarring muffled screams. And after an intro of buzzing acoustic strings, “The End of Sex” becomes a brief albeit gorgeous folk tune that’s oddly catchy despite the album’s aversion to easy accessibility.
Blue Water White Death’s debut album is an unusual piece of art. It’s abrasive, and perhaps even off putting to those who may not already be won over by the respective charms of Shearwater or Xiu Xiu. But there is gold to be found within its atypical constructions and melodic dissonance. This may not be the best place to start for someone unfamiliar with either songwriter, but it’s a worthy stepping stone for those who choose to dig deeper.
Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago
Xiu Xiu – A Promise
Scott Walker – Tilt
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.