Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg and Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart don’t seem like the most fitting musical bedfellows. Meiburg’s got that booming voice and deals in lush, beautiful compositions, while Stewart’s own high airy voice is a tense warble, and his songs are full of brash dissonance, chunks of ragged sound smashed together. But in coming together for Blue Water White Death — a project named for a 1971 documentary on shark explorers — they smartly avoid trying to find common ground.
Instead, Meiburg constructs some threadbare acoustic numbers, like the languid yet troubling “Song for the Greater Jihad” or the surprisingly pastoral “The End of Sex,” and Stewart comes over them with his atonal atmospherics. The gap between Meiburg’s quiet center and Stewart’s musical landscapes is jarring, to say the least. This album isn’t haunting, it’s downright possessed. The buzzing snap of a loose guitar string, a sudden computerized groan, rattling noises off in the distance — all these things put cracks in Meiburg’s flawless singing and also call attention to the negative space that weighs down the entire record. When Stewart takes singing duties, particularly on “Death For Christmas,” there are long stretches where the backing music is barely there, just a distant hum like that from a fluorescent light.
This combination of the intimate and the confrontational makes for a fascinating listen, at least the first couple times through. But as the album replays, it’s the moments you can designate as clear, affecting songs that stick out. As amusing as titles like “This is the Scrunchyface of My Dreams” and “Rendering the Juggalos” are, the songs themselves lose their affect after a while the same way those names do. In the end, it’s stuff like Meiburg’s strong turns mentioned above that stick out on this short, eight-song set. “Song for the Greater Jihad,” for example, sticks out because you can sift through all the stark menacing quiet and find that one sound worth focusing on. For the rest of Blue Water White Death, which attempts to capture the feeling of being on the ocean, the album just sounds lost at sea. And awfully frustrated about it. It’s possible that Meiburg and Stewart could turn into a fruitful paring, based on the finer moments of the record. But their first steps together are, for the most part, awkward ones.