There's a certain fascination I had with Xiu Xiu long before I realized just what a legitimately talented group they were. I'd heard both their 2002 debut Knife Play, an album where 'harrowing' seems far too cuddly a term to describe it's tone, and 2003's slightly less unapproachable A Promise and while I couldn't say that I enjoyed either - really, is 'enjoy' ever the sort of term you'd associate with Xiu Xiu? - I definitely saw something in them. I think back then I'd have argued that they were the logical flipside of the 80s revival, the only group of any sort of profile that was taking cues from the darker side of post-punk without cleaning it up and dressing it in a suit. They were visceral, angular, prone to bursts of noise, angry and most importantly without any pretense. Even if neither of their albums would have come within sniffing distance of my nascent yearly best of lists they did leave an indelible impression on me; I probably listened to at least A Promise far more often than a lot of albums that were 'better' than it just to try to get my bearings on it, trying to determine how the album could start out so undeniably awesome and then fade into useless noise so soon thereafter.
Then I got a copy of the stop gap Fag Patrol EP. Hearing the songs in a completely acoustic setting, devoid of the noisy destruction that the band went into on their albums, showed that A Promise at least was made up of more than its fair share of absolutely great songs that were then willfully obscured or destroyed by noise. I figured it out then and there: Xiu Xiu were a much more accessible band than anyone would ever guess because they took their work and destroyed it before it got into any listeners' hands. Fag Patrol was the key to getting on the band's wavelength I guess; I now knew that there was a solid base to the band's material that I just needed to listen closer to hear. Subsequent listens to A Promise raised it in my estimationdramatically, and while Knife Play didn't get quite that kind of boost - it's a much less mature album all told - I certainly appreciated it in a different way than I had before.
So in a way you could say that Fabulous Muscles was the first album of theirs that I heard properly right off the bat, and thus its position as my favorite Xiu Xiu album isn't surprising. What I didn't expect was just how well it would hold up next to the bulk of other music now that I knew what I was listening to. It could just be that FM was a decidedly large step up from their previous outings on every level, the noisy abstraction was pretty much gone and vocalist Jamie Stewart was clouding his vulnerability with fake bravado or obscuring it painful stabs of noise so the whole album felt that much more...intimate I guess. For once Stewart wasn't holding the listener at arms' length, and to be frank that just made the whole experience even more uncomfortable than being inundated with noise at regular intervals. Uncomfortable, but decidedly better.
Part of the trade off there is that instead of having to root through the noise to find out what Stewart was talking about it was right there in your face. And it was ugly...oh god was it ugly. I think "Nieces Pieces (Boat Knife Version)" was one of the few times that music had come close to making me physically ill at that point, not just for the lyrical content but for Stewart's vocal performance, so frank yet undeniably apologetic as he intoned 'I can't wait til you realize your mommy's heart is broken/I can't wait to watch you grow up around the people who broke it' It still causes a bit of a hard swallow on my part, and the uneasily light accompaniment of trombone, harmonium and guitar only adds to it's fundamental discomfort. It was such a devastating song, and the way it rubbed up against "Clowne Towne," the album's most upbeat moment, made it that much more of an uneasy listen. Similarly the title track could have been played for shock based on it's lyrics ('cremate me after you come on my lips') but once again the vocals made it seems almost touching in spite of that. There were still the confrontational, noisy numbers but they were spread out between these uncomfortably intimate numbers. It's not a coincidence that the most obvious of these, the Generation Kill-inspired "Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)" is the one I'm most likely to skip as I go through the album - though Devendra Banhart's re-imagining of it as a doo wop number is strangely inspired.
Outside of the lyrics and those much rarer instances of noisy track destruction, there seems to be a decided move towards something approaching accessibility. "Clowne Towne" particularly borders on being lush, replete with strangely upbeat strings as Stewart jauntily - seriously, jauntily - croons out a litany of character-defamations related to a figure (himself?) who 'has become weak and alone and annoying/a true ridiculous dumb-ass'. It's disconcertingly upbeat, as is the previously dissected single "I Luv the Valley OH!", but even more disconcertingly there's nothing like the former's cathartic 'OOOOOOHHHHHHHHH!' to remind you that this is in fact a Xiu Xiu song. Given the more overtly pop moves that Stewart has made on the band's subsequent releases it feels like "Clowne Towne" is the impetus for all the disappointing material he followed up this masterpiece with, yet the song itself is utterly captivating. Same goes for the much darker opener "Crank Heart" which does the grunge dynamics thing with a decidedly more sinister air than normal and winds up being unnervingly catchy.
Essentially, Fabulous Muscles is the summation of everything that Stewart and his cohorts could do right. It's the one album under the Xiu Xiu name that makes for a consistent back-to-front listen, the only one that doesn't seem to lose any of its magic for me despite 5 years of semi-constant listening and the one that seems to be the most personal. I'm sure all three of those qualities are interconnected somehow, but what it really boils down to is that Stewart seems to have come around with a 35 minute set of material that wouldn't have worked until he got over the need for destroying his own material. It's as if Fag Patrol's relative success showed that people were ready to handle his material in a less abstracted light and he took full advantage by letting loose some of his most horrifyingly personal material. It helped that it was also his best material, and still stands as such to this day.
Video: "Crank Heart"
Video: "I Luv the Valley OH!"
Video: "Clowne Towne"