Back when I was twelve, I never understood why Faith No More’s Angel Dust, with its lack of profanity, got slapped with a parental advisory sticker. I revisited the album sometime last year after nearly a decade’s distance and was amazed at how dark, violent and insane a portrait it paints through its bizarre juxtaposition of sounds and lyrical themes. Xiu Xiu’s Fabulous Muscles stands as the 2004 equivalent, swapping woefully out-of-date funk-metal for lo-fi electronic chaos.
On previous Xiu Xiu albums, critics have been known to throw out words like “disturbing” and “shocking” as sort of all encompassing adjectives for the band’s work. In truth, it’s the songwriting and vocal melody inventiveness that serves as the pulse quickener. Aside from a quality level, bandleader Jamie Stewart’s confrontational lyrics aren’t pushing any envelopes farther than mainstream types like Eminem or Marilyn Manson have in recent years.
The opening salvo, “Crack Heart,” kicks off on a creaky axle where progressively more warped and distorted merry-go-round sounds get chewed up by gnashing, rusty funhouse teeth. “I Love the Valley” sounds like The Cure if the requisite synths were used as tension pins rather than for cumulous calmness. “Clowne Towne,” with its precocious pre-school keyboard riffs, bright, strummed chords and plastic percussion is a break in the storm clouds, and, in spite of the sporadic analog raspberries that pock mark the pop structure, it’s got college radio hit written on it.
The album’s only weakness is on the graphic spoken word war protest “Support Our Troops.” Using broad generalities to lump all soldiers into an evil, bullying archetype, Stewart comes across as shallow, exacting petty revenge for high school abuse at the hands of jocks. What rescues this track is that it easily has the best anti-structure songwriting on the entire album; it moves from damaged, pulsing throbs to walls of strings, from restrained melodies to chaotic white noise.
Much like Angel Dust, Fabulous Muscles is indicative of a specific moment in avant-garde music when years of experimentation have brought a nightmarish band to the mainstream’s edge. Whether the band can keep the upward swing going or not remains to be seen, but right now, Xiu Xiu is definitely one of the most important bands in indie rock.