Fabulous Muscles

Xiu Xiu

(LP - Polyvinyl #291)

Review by Heather Phares

Xiu Xiu continue to push the envelope with their third album in two years, Fabulous Muscles. While their mix of low-res electronics, flamboyant synth pop, and experimental rock sounds slightly more accessible than it has before, that just makes it easier for Jamie Stewart's confrontational vocals and lyrics to sink in that much deeper. As always, Xiu Xiu juxtapose their heroic doses of misery with lovely, if rough-edged, music: the drooping synth lines and chunky beats on "Crank Heart" and "Brian Vampire" sound like the music from some unspeakably sad video game, while "Little Panda McElroy"'s acoustic guitars have a hesitant prettiness that makes lyrics like "I can stop hating my own heart/I can do it because of you" even more intimate. Stewart either whispers obsessively or shout-sings, as if he's trying to drown out his own thoughts, and does both on the brilliantly morose "I Luv the Valley OH!," on which he vows, "It's a heart that you made/And I won't rest until I break it." More so than with many other bands, Xiu Xiu's music immerses the listener in the band's world view and the songs' characters: "Bunny Gamer" is an extraordinary portrait of yearning and self-loathing that begins as an internal monologue of an unrequited lover and then becomes a painful dialogue between him and the object of his affection, who is much more careless and carefree. The song's dead-calm desperation borders on the creepy and pathetic, but this is the uncomfortable territory that Xiu Xiu claim as their own. Much like the musical equivalent of Todd Solondz or Harmony Korine, Xiu Xiu set out to disturb their audience in pursuit of higher artistic goals. More often than not (and arguably more often than Solondz and Korine), the group succeeds. "Support Our Troops OH!," which graphically depicts a U.S. troop killing a young girl, could have been played for shock value, but the palpable anger that runs through the track is more implosive than strident. Similarly, "Nieces Pieces (Boat Knife Version)" explores a dysfunctional family with quiet contempt and dark humor rather than outright rage. It all culminates on "Fabulous Muscles (Mama Black Widow Version)" -- its effeminately macho title is yet another one of Xiu Xiu's dualities -- a mix of sex, violence, and sadness that features the lyrics "Cremate me after you come on my lips, honey boy/Keep my ashes in a vase beneath your workout bench" and manages to be horrific, romantic, and funny at the same time. Fabulous Muscles might be the best expression of Xiu Xiu's unrepentantly original music; even if the world that the band creates isn't necessarily one you'd want to visit all the time, it remains fascinating.

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