Personnel: Sean McBride, Liz Wendelbo (synthesizer).
Audio Mixer: Rick Kwan.
Recording information: Clubhouse Studio.
When it comes to the creative process, what is removed is as important as what is kept. Xeno & Oaklander are well aware of this: while Sean McBride and Liz Wendelbo have artfully honed their sound with each release, on the aptly named Topiary -- which clocks in at a svelte 30 minutes -- they find the harmony between structure and flow through restraint. Fittingly, the album sounds crisper than Par Avion's breezy meditations, perhaps because this is the first time Xeno & Oaklander have recorded in a professional studio (Tom Tom Club's Clubhouse in Connecticut) instead of their own Brooklyn setup. Whatever the reason, Topiary gives more shape to the duo's hard-edged synth pop and gauzy interludes, beginning the album's halves with the former and fleshing them out with the latter. "Marble" kicks off Topiary with one of Xeno & Oaklander's boldest and catchiest statements of purpose yet, while "Palms" announces the album's midpoint with emphatic beats and decadent, mysterious imagery. Both songs spotlight the pristine vocals of Wendelbo, who handles all of Topiary's singing -- another first. While the vocal interplay between her and McBride is missed, focusing on Wendelbo's voice allows for more contrast between her and her surroundings on songs like "Chimera," where she floats above a gritty synthscape, and "Baroque," where she sings about "the chemistry of passion" with icy precision. However, not all of Topiary's juxtapositions are this severe. As it builds toward a danceable climax, "Chevron"'s synths range from foggy to crystalline, while the title track's mix of sensuality and menace is beautiful in its ambiguity. Elsewhere, songs like "Virtues & Vice" and "Worldling Worlds" convey a uniquely serene kind of drama as Wendelbo and McBride set their slowly unfurling melodies adrift on dry-ice atmospheres. Equally accessible and true to Xeno & Oaklander's essence, Topiary distills their music into one of its finest forms yet. ~ Heather Phares