Xiu Xiu could be a bitter, hard pill to swallow, but there's
something so sincere about Jamie Stewart's impassioned delivery.
His exquisitely pained vocal theatrics often receives comparisons
to Robert Smith, but the brooding and sometimes sexually charged
imagery in his lyrics is more reminiscent of Morrissey - you might
even detect an occasional hint of the Moz's thespian humor. Stewart
is far from ambiguous though; just reference the name and the
explicit lyrics of "Fabulous Muscles," the title track.
Musically speaking however, Xiu Xiu sites modern classical (particularly
Henry Cowell) and gamelan music as major influences which no doubt
plays into the band's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangements,
abrasive dynamics and exotic use of instrumentation.
Previous Xiu Xiu albums have shown Stewart's ever-changing line-up
quite adept at molding dark, melodramatic pop songs from a frenzied
din of sounds, and the third full-length "Fabulous Muscles"
drives this point home. More experimental in nature than previous
releases, with a heavier reliance on electronics and skewed performances
that play like an acid-cabaret, noisy outbursts suddenly drop
to soothing drones as Stewart's voice trembles, yelps or whispers
with elastic emotion. Skittering percussive clanks, buzzes and
orchestra swells come at you with ramshackle abandon and then
disappear without warning, but every instrument, every wheezing
tone, every breath -- it's all there for a reason. Xiu Xiu is
both challenging and accessible, and very human.
And then there are the moments that are completely stripped down
to the barest of accompaniment; the spooky folk of the title track
is a disturbing yet tender love song born from submission and
death. (An earlier version of "Fabulous Muscles" appeared
last year on a split EP with Jim Yoshii Pile-Up.) Throughout the
album, Stewart tackles topics of child molestation, war, and suicide
often viewed from the victim's eyes, but listen closely and you'll
detect a small glimmer of hope shining through before the impending
devastation. Not for the faint of heart, fans of Devendra Banhart,
Birthday Party, Frog Eyes and even Current 93 will probably hail
"Fabulous Muscles" as a necessary listen. [GH]