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Xiu Xiu - Fabulous Muscles

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Artist: Xiu Xiu

Album: Fabulous Muscles

Label: 5 Rue Christine

Review date: Feb. 13, 2004

"Cremate me before you cum on my lips / Honey boy, place my ashes in a vase beneath your workout bench."

Do I have your attention now? Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart has a penchant for saying – and playing – things that will make your jaw drop. Whether or not that's a good thing is, of course, a matter of opinion: read a few web reviews of previous Xiu Xiu releases and you won't have any idea whether they're purveyors of 'formless' noise or brilliantly-crafted pop; whether they're smartasses or sincere, deranged geniuses.

When an indie band inspires the sort of love/hate reactions Xiu Xiu does, it's likely that one of two things are going on. The first is that the haters overreact on the grounds that band's music is too plain to justify the hype; see, for example, Ryan Adams and Death Cab For Cutie. The second is that the haters genuinely dislike the forcefulness of the band's personality. Music that tends to provoke the latter reaction is typically described as 'too pretentious,' 'too wordy' or 'too disorganized.' Bands that make this sort of music include the Dismemberment Plan, Joan of Arc, and U.S. Maple.

I don't intend to imply that people that dislike those bands are 'wrong,' or even really to defend any of those bands (although...). But I'm much more interested in bands that cause extreme reactions based on their distinctive features rather than their lack thereof. Indie fans often base their dislikes on the presence of things they find cheesy rather than the absence of unique characteristics. This is why otherwise intelligent people do stupid things like going to Quasi and Postal Service shows and filling their reviews of those bands' records with adjectives like 'consistent' and 'solid' and 'introspective' and with disapproving references to 'manufactured pop,' as if the prevalence of music that features beats made by machines somehow makes Quasi's by-the-numbers dreck seem acceptable in comparison. Critics who value consistency and solidity above all else usually want all music to be essentially the same. If a band is hated – and loved – because they're doing too much, rather than too little, it's usually a sign that something evolutionary and healthy is going on.

Xiu Xiu are typically hated for doing too much, for putting too much of themselves on their records. They're hated for being noisy, for singing melodramatically, for including tons of weird percussion sounds, and for writing bizarre, specific, over-the-top lyrics. Despite – no, because of – all those things, Xiu Xiu are, in my opinion, one of rock's most disturbing and compelling acts.

Jamie Stewart's lyrics are one of the causes of the polarizing reactions, and the words are probably even stranger on Fabulous Muscles than ever before. As always, Stewart's mix of brooding and dark humor has me wondering if he actually thinks like he writes. "Mike," an elegy to Stewart's real-life father who committed suicide, ends, "I feel like I am not nice because sometimes / It is hard for me to think something happy about you / Except for that Dad, I love you and will always, always miss you / Pull my finger." What?! "Pull my finger"?!

On paper it reads like a childish joke, but as Stewart whispers those lines in a mannered voice over a pathetic-sounding, overdriven Casio, they sound as if they just might be serious. Real-life thinking is almost never as straightforward as most pop music tries to make it seem. I personally have a stream of scatological thought that's usually bubbling just below the surface, even in serious moments, and I suspect others do too; why shouldn't Stewart be allowed to put his in a song?

Elsewhere, Stewart sings about incest, murder, codependence and other sordid topics. If he described them in a general way, they would be run-of-the-mill, but unlike most Goth types, Stewart fills his lyrics with proper names and strange details. Xiu Xiu's first two albums were so dark that it was tough to listen to more than a few songs in one sitting; lyrically, Fabulous Muscles may be even darker.

Musically, however, Xiu Xiu has lightened up considerably. Stewart moved to a new apartment before he and producer Cory McCulloch made the album, and he wasn't able to be as loud as he had been before. As a result, the textures are considerably thinner, and the songs rely more heavily on electronics. Stewart claims he has been listening mostly to contemporary classical music and pop; the former influence is hard to hear, but the latter is much more prevalent than on either of the other Xiu Xiu albums. "Crank Heart" is noisy, asymmetrical new wave; "Little Panda McElroy (b)" could be a nice piano ballad if it weren't smothered in shoegazer-y distortion; and "Clowne Towne" mixes bubbly, Boards of Canada-like electronics with a classic pop progression and an unapologetically bright string arrangement.

None of these songs actually sound like real pop music – they're angular, structurally choppy, and filled with tons of strange lo-fi details. And there's still plenty of noise to be found here: the brilliant cut-up of Josh Stewart's trumpet on "Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)" sounds like a Greg Kelley record.

Still, Fabulous Muscles is the first Xiu Xiu record you can listen to from beginning to end without feeling emotionally overloaded. Odd, grotesque and yet catchier than anything they've ever made, Muscles is a great place for Xiu Xiu newcomers to start. It's both their weirdest and most accessible album yet.

By Charlie Wilmoth

Other Reviews of Xiu Xiu

Chapel of the Chimes

La Forêt

The Air Force

Dear God, I Hate Myself


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