Xeno & Oaklander

Xeno & Oaklander—the duo of Liz Wendelbo and Sean McBride—came up through Pieter Schoolwerth’s Wierd Nights, an endearingly gloomy fixture of late ’00s New York. In the early days, the pair’s music was of a piece with the sounds popular at Wierd—a posthumously defined category of obscure ’80s synth-pop, largely from continental Europe, known as minimal synth.

Wendelbo and McBride’s early music echoed minimal synth’s dour romantic pathos and stark monochromatic textures. But since Wierd closed its doors in 2013, Xeno & Oaklander gradually embraced color and sensuality. Their seventh album, Vi/deo, gusts in as if carried on a waft of perfume, sweet and overpowering. “Aromas of incense and spices/Will rise again/Feelings of misery/Will fade into the haze,” sings Wendelbo on “Infinite Sadness,” as synth melodies bloom like wildflowers. The track’s title is a sign that Xeno & Oaklander haven’t entirely foregone the pleasures of melancholy, but the frigidity of their early output has been replaced by a welcoming new warmth.

In parallel with her musical work, Wendelbo is a perfumier, and she and McBride work together to express a feeling of synesthesia. Her vocals here have a breathy, translucent quality, as if cast out of vapor. By contrast, the music that backs her is crisp and energetic. McBride is the polar opposite of the synth-pop instrumentalist disinterestedly prodding at his keyboard with one finger. Live, he resembles a technician, sleeves rolled up, grappling the controls of a vast modular synth as if guiding the Starship Enterprise through a particularly perilous meteor storm. You can feel this sense of toil on the record: “Afar” and “Raingarden” build up layers upon layers of melodies that interlace in bright, jerky patterns, often feeling just a whisker from spinning dangerously out of control.

What’s remained constant with Xeno & Oaklander is their firm commitment to tactile analog technologies and nostalgic themes. “Television” and “Movie Star” are thoughtful paeans to popular entertainment that feel descended from Kraftwerk, another group entranced by stardom and the power of mass communication. Elsewhere, tracks like “Technicolor” unfold like subtle melodramas, as if soundtracking the moment when a starlet stares off into the middle distance as a solitary tear trickles down her cheek. But for all this looking back, Vi/deo never sounds retro. 

The record’s comparatively brief runtime—eight tracks, dispatched in 33 minutes—combined with its ethereal qualities mean it feels somewhat fleeting. A frequent vocal presence on earlier Xeno & Oaklander records, McBride pops up here only briefly, his dour tones on “Television” offering an appealing jolt of cold reality. Though a few more moments like this would have brought the album’s abundant beauty into sharp relief, Vi/deo mostly passes in a reverie, a set of heady rhapsodies that linger in the senses long after the record comes to a close.

Buy: Rough Trade


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