When Xiu Xiu's last album, A Promise
, was released, they were pegged as being "not quite there yet". That might not seem like a big deal, or even that much of a compliment, but when you look back, many of today's most exciting and innovative bands were initially viewed in much the same light: Radiohead weathered a similar storm after the release of The Bends
, Wilco got the nod post-Summerteeth
, and the Flaming Lips found themselves trapped between critical nirvana and commercial failure circa Clouds Taste Metallic
. Just because a band isn't quite there yet doesn't mean they won't get to wherever "there" is, or that they won't eventually exceed everyone's expectations.
With Fabulous Muscles, the San Francisco-based outfit, captained by singer/songwriter Jamie Stewart, make the transition from barely fringe-worthy experimental noise gonks to streamlined goth-pop kingpins seem astoundingly easy. Though the group's muse used to dwell in the realm of fuzzy brown oval transference, they now trade in a world of startlingly bleak, matte-black liquid-crystal experimental pop perfection pitched somewhere between John Cage's frightening austerity and the bittersweet squall of Swell Maps. Art-pop doesn't get any more accessible than this.
It's not all sunshine sing-alongs and happy-clappy people, but a reservoir of mystifying melody winds its way through Fabulous Muscle's dark corridors. Twinkling tirade "I Luv the Valley OH!" sounds like the death of sanity, with Stewart reaching down into his bowels to extricate feelings of misery and dread. The synth/mellotron-soaked "Bunny Gamer" sounds like a secret from a drunken best friend after a long night on the rails, and New Order-banged coke-cocktail "Crank Heart" is hopelessly gloomy and irresistibly dancey in the same breath. Even the album's most recalcitrant moments -- "Little Panda McElroy (b)" and "Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)" -- have a humanity that puts them at odds with avant-garde's suffocating asceticism.
The unsettling moments that have in many ways come to define Xiu Xiu recordings are present here, too. However, while those moments used to overwhelm listeners -- shocking them into submission, so to speak -- they are now masked by tunes of exceptional beauty. In the process, Stewart's inherent peculiarity becomes far more charming than disturbing.
Fabulous Muscles proclaims to the world that Xiu Xiu are finally "there" -- ready to enter the loving embrace of a million similarly disenfranchised skew-pop freaks.