I have taken a seriously roundabout way in listening to the music of Xiu Xiu. The first release of theirs that I stumbled upon was their Chapel Of The Chimes EP and after that I checked out their debut Knife Playand then their follow-up A Promise some time later. Although there was a very obvious clear progression in terms of their sound and their ability to turn the outbreaks of Jamie Stewart into memorable (and perhaps more importantly, listenable) songs. Despite all this, I took my time getting around to Fabulous Muscles and I must say that I feel bad about that.
This is the best album from the group by a long, long shot and although there are still a couple spots where they rub me slightly the wrong way, they've managed to create a glorious and succinct album that somehow pulls together everything they've been trying to do for years now into a batch of 10 tracks that mix and mash emotions like the varying musical styles they weave. The two opening tracks on the release are the best one-two punch that the group has ever done, with "Crank Heart" starting out like a pure synthpop track before Stewart adds his pained vocals as basslines growl and electronics spray erratically. "I Luv The Valley OH!" is even more pop-structured, building from a pretty guitar melody and a crunchy beat while Stewart gets increasingly frantic, eventually simply devolving into a perfect "la la la la" as the track slides into controlled chaos.
The album seems to move in little two-song movements throughout, as both "Bunny Gamer" and "Little Panda McElroy" keep more of the electronic sounds but keep dropping the noise factor as the latter falls to almost a whisper before sighing with gorgeous wheezes of processed sound. Taking things in an even more experimental direction is the more abstract "Support Our Troop OH!" a spoken-word track that takes the polar opposite position of little yellow ribbons while subdued waves of feedback threaten to overtake everything. Although sonically understated, it's the least subtle track on the disc and makes its point like a kick in the teeth. After the acoustic guitar and vocals of the album-titled track, the disc breaks into what is probably the loudest track on the disc with "Brian The Vampire," a piece that is all overdriven keyboards and electronics that pound relentlessly while Stewart soars above it all.
Although the album only runs 40 minutes long, it's one of those discs that doesn't give itself away easily. While there are noisy freakouts, they don't simply feel as tacked-on as in albums past and literally every song seems to have a place and a point on the album. It's a disc full of turmoil and often pained thought that hides itself like a wolf in sheep's clothing at times (especially on tracks like the buoyant, choir-backed "Clowne Towne"). Even if you haven't liked the group in the past, you might very well find yourself won over by Fabulous Muscles.