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XXL - Puff O’Gigio Music Album Reviews

On their fourth album together, Xiu Xiu and Larsen create a sense of cinematic whimsy anchored around a mythological creature who helps with household chores.

Xiu Xiu and Larsen, or XXL, lace their bruising collaborative music with a prankster’s humor. For two decades, Xiu Xiu founder Jamie Stewart has added a sly silliness to his noise-pop Petri dishes of human brutality, once rhyming “vigorous” with “pig-orous.” The scuzzed-up post-rock of Italian four-piece Larsen, meanwhile, skews outré. They once recorded a whole album with Swans’ Michael Gira while shrouded by a dark screen, while 2016’s breathtaking Of Grog Vim used instrumentals to frame the narrative of the supposed visionary for which it was named.

XXL’s largely instrumental fourth album, Puff O’Gigio, is a clash of experimental tics and post-punk throb, pulling the outlandish tendencies of both bands into vivid widescreen frames. In the past, XXL’s three albums split the difference between Larsen’s hypnagogic soundscapes and Xiu Xiu’s overblown melodies, with bright hooks that could sometimes pass for Stewart’s own darkened pop. Recorded in one week during December 2016 in Turin, Puff O’Gigio gathers these impulses with a more even-handed approach. Now 13 years since their debut together, Ciautistico!, XXL has reached a new crest of collaborative motion.

Puff O’Gigio thrives on a cinematic sense of whimsy, telegraphed by the album’s titular figure—“a mythological, genetically modified character” that they say is a chimera of the Italian translation of Smurf and Ed Sullivan’s mouse marionette, Topo Gigio. XXL suggest these 11 tracks inhabit “the same colorful, intersectional world as the character,” but that underplays this album’s boundless sense of scale; Puff O’Gigio is only the steward at the threshold of some bright, bleeding fantastical realm.

At moments, this album teems with sun-guzzling optimism. The exploratory “Welcome to My Planet,” for instance, opens with a haunting high pitch before a flurry of bleeps announces a hypnotic guitar pattern, a ruckus of chatter, and a nonsense melody from Larsen’s Paolo Dellapiana. Conjuring Thom Yorke’s deepest trances, the effect is oddly serene. “Ghost Maid” delivers punch-the-air joy, with kaleidoscopic synths shooting through a vortex of bass. Larsen’s Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo offers a spoken-word ode to a benevolent ghost who helps with household chores—presumably, Puff O’Gigio itself. His words pierce the veil with emotion: “There is no way to embrace you/There is no way to feel you when you land on my fingertip.” This love song to an imagined creature hits you unexpectedly, evoking a deep yearning for human connection.

With its looming soundscapes and twitch-inducing rattles, Puff O’Gigio sometimes feels like an uneasy phantasmagoria or the exploration of some alien landscape where unseen nasties lurk in the dark. “Polar Bear Boogie Part 01” plays up the eeriness with droning electric guitars that recall Six Organs of Admittance, while the seesaw of carnivalesque synths and low-end rumble during “Queen of Koalas” envelops you like quicksand. Most sinister of all is the minimalist shadowplay of “To Carol Rama,” a Stewart-led horror that recalls Shirley Jackson’s nightmare-inducing tale, “The Lottery.” “Why curse Satan as the cause of all of your troubles?” Stewart whispers grimly through vocals layered with wraith-like hiss.

As it plays off a sense of wonder and a creeping notion of menace, Puff O’Gigio feels like it’s always shifting beneath you, a sense captured by an album cover that could be a satellite view of some unknown geographical formation or a distorted image of an earlobe. It’s an apt fit for a record where frequencies oscillate with a sense of embryonic discovery; by embracing the fantastical, XXL find a new frequency of their own.

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