March 05, 2004

Xiu Xiu "Fabulous Muscles"

More than a few arguments have been presented against Xiu Xiu. People have argued that the group relies on shock tactics and unusual instrumentation rather than honest-to-goodness songcraft. And to be perfectly frank, up until now, this has largely been the case. But, it seems that in the mere months between Fabulous Muscles and Xiu Xiu’s last release, 2003’s A Promise, Jamie Stewart and company seem to have experienced considerable growth as songwriters and musicians. While previous albums exhibited scattershot moments of brilliance amidst mostly plodding, ponderous fare, on Xiu Xiu’s latest opus they’re finally beginning to realize the potential they’ve shown in the past; expanding and streamlining rather than watering down their patent brand of Bauhaus meets Gamelan meets early video game soundtracks.

Fabulous Muscles kicks off with the one-two punch of the 8-bit Prozac symphony “Crank Heart” and- arguably the group’s most accessible composition to date- “I Luv The Valley”. Over the course of “I Luv The Valley”, singer Jamie Stewart laments in an almost desperate yelp, ‘it’s a heart that you made/and I won’t rest until I break it’ while a swaying bassline, synth noise, and industrial percussion lend surprisingly lush support.

“Bunny Gamer” paints an effectively discomforting portrait of unrequited love with Stewart’s frazzled quiver and omnipresent synth strings. While “Support Our Troops OH!”- which seems works better as a mood piece than an actual song- imparts a disturbingly gruesome account of a soldier shooting a 4-year old girl over rickety, kitchen sink percussion, tape effects, and electronic squealing. “Little Panda McElroy” and “Nieces Pieces” are bland sound collages, while “Brian The Vampire” although featuring some interesting aural experiments (check out that distorted synth break after the second chorus) and a catchy, deliciously angular synth melody but ultimately comes up a bit short in the content area. The title track would be a mostly forgettable affair if not for Jamie Stewart’s histrionic vocal performance and unsettlingly hilarious refrain, “cremate me after you cum on my lips, honey boy/keep my ashes in a vase beneath your workout bench".

Right around the midway point of “Nieces Pieces”, my verdict was going to be something along the lines of ‘Xiu Xiu continues to show potential…Fabulous Muscles is an interesting but vacuous collection of songs…Jamie Stewart = Ian Curtis had Curtis been a stand-up comedian…” My opinion of Fabulous Muscles pulled a complete 180 with the appearance of “Clown Town”. A track I can unabashedly declare as the finest Xiu Xiu song to date, in three minutes and fifty-two seconds “Clown Town” seems to signify the exposure of all the potential they’ve been concealing over the last few years.

Setting the stage for the greatness ahead, a synth performs a simple melody accompanied by cascading, Neubauten-esque percussion. Then, the strings come in only to disappear just as quickly as they arrived. They’re soon replaced by a softly strummed electric guitar, assorted bleeps and bloops, and Stewart’s aching tenor. As he sings simultaneously morbid and amusing vignettes as, “your true father smashed his hands through the glass…”, “your true love has drunk herself into not being able to pay her rent…”, “your true brother has betrayed you over and over…”, and “your true self has become weak, alone, and annoying”, one can’t help but wonder if Stewart’s being sincere or just playing a huge joke on everyone. The album’s closer, “Mike,” is a captivating dirge for an apparent suicide victim set against an amalgam of dense percussion, video game sound effects, and whispered vocals. While nowhere near as magnificent as the heights previous track reached, “Mike” works quite well as a concluding thought.

So, it’s the verdict you want, huh? Fabulous Muscles struck me as a tremendously interesting record with plenty of little auditory curveballs to throw listeners for a loop. Although Xiu Xiu haven’t lost their knack for writing unpredictable, almost comically melodramatic tunes with audience-polarizing lyrics--they’ve enhanced their ability, if anything--and I’ve always felt that this group was capable of so much more. Fabulous Muscles is a fantastic underachievement from a group with the capacity to overachieve. I’m almost certain that Xiu Xiu's next album will be one for the record books.

--Jonathan Pfeffer

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