If two individuals break away from their well-respected bands to form a new one together, does it constitute the formation of a supergroup? It’s a good question, though the answer is most likely the easiest by simply saying yes. With just two people though, it might be more accurate to call them a superduo rather than a supergroup. This week in superduo formations, Blue Water White Death is the name that Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater and Jaime Stewart of Xiu Xiu came up with for their new project. Their self-titled record is out this week, and if you’re a fan of either of these two guys, there’s something for you here.
Xiu Xiu are a notoriously tough band to get into, primarily because Jaime Stewart seems to really like abstract and challenging melodies. He’s not afraid to get weird, and that’s been to both the benefit and detriment of the band. Shearwater, on the other hand, are well known for their carefully and gorgeously composed songs, implementing strings and a host of other instruments to get the point across. It’s highly dramatic and Jonathan Meiburg’s voice can go from cowering to soaring at the flip of a switch. What’s pretty fascinating as well is how much Meiburg and Stewart sound exactly alike the majority of the time, though Stewart seems to prefer yelping and screaming rather than smoothly soaring. That’s probably because it serves his end purpose better. Vocals aside, it would seem that these two guys and their bands have little in common with one another. so how a collaboration would play out is an interesting concept. Blue Water White Death turns that hypothetical situation into a reality, and surprisingly it plays out how you might expect it to.
Beautiful experimentation are the two words to best describe Blue Water White Death’s debut, as Meiburg carefully handles the beautiful part and Stewart takes care of the experimental part. The album’s first single and longest song at 6+ minutes is “Song for the Greater Jihad”, and it perfectly sums up what to expect from the record. There’s a quietly picked acoustic guitar that comes across as shimmering, and matched with Meiburg’s delicately forceful vocals it could be a Shearwater song. But then there are the obtuse and loud bass guitar hits every so often, coming across like somebody is smashing the guitar with a mallet. There’s also a power drill that makes a violent appearance somewhere close to the middle of the track, for no apparent reason than to create more odd cacophony. These things don’t exactly ruin the track, but they do feel just a little forced, like they both listened to the song and said, “it sounds too precious and clean”. That seems to be the motive or manifesto for most of the record, calm beauty occasionally interrupted by noises that clearly don’t belong. Over the album’s 8 tracks, that pattern is largely repeated time and time again, to the point where things start to blend together a little and standout moments are hard to come by. “Grunt Tube” is nice, and paired up with “Song for the Greater Jihad” they form a nice 1-2 punch. The same goes for the two closing tracks “Gall” and “Rendering the Juggalos”, the former taking on some more psychedelic elements while the latter splices together a series of noises to excellent effect. In between those relative bookends there’s a gray area that’s more okay than it is great.
Meiburg and Stewart chose to name their band after a documentary about shark hunters, and listening to this Blue Water White Death debut makes perfect sense when considered in that context. Meiburg represents the Blue Water half of the band, crafting melodies that soundtrack the relative calm and mystery of the sea. Stewart takes the form of White Death, like a predator shark prowling those quiet waters and attacking prey at will. That being said, the combination may be unique but it lacks real purpose. Not much comes off as revelatory or particularly worth your time, especially when comparing this project with the two members’ main bands. Perhaps the album’s problems have something to do with the fact that they wrote and recorded it in only a week, entering the studio with no instruments or set plans. It’s no wonder that most of the tracks feel somewhat haphazardly thrown together or not entirely complete. The thought was good, the execution was not. For fans of Shearwater and/or Xiu Xiu, Blue Water White Death is something worth at least giving a try, just to see if it strikes you in the right way. Most everyone else will struggle and probably give up on it. This debut has given us enough of a reason to see that the pairing of these two dynamic artists can yield strong results, it just might take a little bit of time and care to nurture the project into something healthier for mass consumption.