The first thing you hear when you put on Fabulous Muscles, the third full-length from Oakland's Xiu Xiu, is a couple of giggly synths burbling over skittish drumming. It sounds like tweaky circus music. "Oh," you think, "a fun-time happy album." Then vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jamie Stewart starts singing in a whisper. "Hmm, this is getting interesting," you muse, as a throbbing bass drum ramps up from the background. "Wait, is that a -- " BAM! The song explodes in a burst of distorted, nervous energy, Stewart begins yelling his head off, and suddenly you're wondering, "What the hell is this music, anyway?"
Well, it's strange, disturbing music. Xiu Xiu (pronounced "shoe shoe") is essentially a vehicle for Stewart to express his fraying sanity. The band's sound is a schizophrenic melting pot of electronic and acoustic noises, a frothy wash of rhythms and melodies that's simultaneously grating and eerily tempting.
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Most of the music here is gloomy, overwrought stuff, evoking everyone from Joy Division to Swans to Nick Cave to Bright Eyes; lyrics about betrayal, death, and abuse further dim the lights. Stewart's worldview is not for the faint of heart, but what makes it worth getting through are the odd moments of beauty within it, like the bouquet of "la la la"s the singer offers in "I Luv the Valley" or the interplay of crystal-clean guitars and sullen harmonium in "Nieces Pieces." Contrary to its opening notes, Fabulous Muscles is not a fun-time happy album. Still, the silver lining that Stewart draws into these dark, foreboding songs imbues them with a kind of hopefulness.