Toronto
3 min

Fabulous Muscles ain’t

Baby-faced Norwegian is

XIU XIU POO POO. Our music reviewer has no patience for queer west-coast whiners. Credit: Xtra files

I must be getting old. Recently I tried listening to favourite albums of my teen years. Those comforting, dark and brooding, slit your wrists monstrosities. Grandma gets thrown down the stairs. You’re at the edge of a precipice. You want to kill. You’re drowning. Goth camp! The Shock Headed Peters, Siouxsie And The Banshees and Nico – loved them. Now… not so much. Just give me Doris Day singing “Deadwood Stage” and I’m a happy camper.



Fabulous Muscles, the latest CD from the Oakland/Seattle-based band Xiu Xiu (pronounced shoe-shoe), is one of those dark, self-loathing albums and it’s far from fun. It’s dizzyingly depressing, excruciatingly self-indulgent and sadly uses gay sexuality as the subtext of vocalist and songwriter Jamie Stewart’s eerie and disturbing thoughts. The dark bands I loved always had a boner for Edgar Allan Poe, beat poets, Dadaists… the avant-garde. This is more like Bret Easton Ellis meets Springer. Nothing humorous nor poetic about it. It’s creepy.



On the title track, Stewart’s fragile voice warbles and cries, “Cremate me after you cum on my lips/ Honey boy place my ashes in a vase/ Beneath your workout bench.” On “Brian The Vampire” he asks, “What happens to you when your dad/ Hears your brother pull down your underpants.”



I don’t think I could hate an album more.



Every song is sad and abrasive. Apparently Stewart is obsessed with and inspired by The Smiths. He’s not even close to their brilliance. As dark as Morrissey got with a lyric, it had a romantic longing. Let’s compare. Here is Morrissey’s controversial moor murders-inspired “Suffer Little Children.” “For a child cries/ Find me… find me, nothing more/ We’re on a sullen misty moor/ We may be dead and we may be gone/ But we will be right by your side/ Until the day you die/ This is no easy ride.” Now here’s Stewart’s lyric for the anti-war ambient spittle “Support Our Troops Oh! (Black Angels Oh!).” “Did you know you were going to shoot/ Off the top of a four-year-old girl’s head/ And look across her car seat down into her skull/ And see into her throat.”



Stewart blames the “stupid, greedy jock soldiers” and ends the song with, “Why should I care if you get killed?” Time to get over your junior high school issues, Mr Stewart.



Guitars thrash and crunch, bass lines are slow and boring and the noisy synth beeps and ticks are a retro nightmare. Self-mutilation, incest, sad sex and hateful deaths – I can’t tell if the band is serious or just being silly. I think gay kids today are way past this self-deprecating dark world when it comes to their sexuality. Fuck Xiu Xiu. Hang out with The Hidden Cameras. They’re naughty, too, but they at least make gay a good thing.



***

Can an album be cute? Twenty-one-year-old Norwegian baby-face Sondre Lerche’s second album, Two Way Monologue, is just that. It aspires to be as good as anything by The Beatles or The Beach Boys. Well, he’s not there yet… but he’s ever so close. Like his first CD (2002’s Faces Down), this is an album of dreamy pop hooks, uneven but mostly smart and sweetly crooned lyrics. It frolics in Bacharach meadows, Steely Dan alleys and on McCartney long and winding roads. It’s a mesmerizing, melancholy record.



The song “Track You Down” is a good example of Lerche’s formidable songwriting skills. The drum and guitar gently play as Lerche tells us of his emotional state with somewhat odd wordplay. “When tears are pretzels pouring down each time/ The sweetness is returning.” But the song builds to a chorus lush with sampled strings, piano and heavy drumbeats. The melodies are so gorgeous; they support the lyric and allow you to forgive some of the “lost in translation” text.



“Wet Ground” is an immensely touching song with echoey Beach Boy harmonies. Lerche’s boyish, teary-eyed vocals even cracks hoarsely as he cries, “Wet ground and the snow is still not falling/ Circumstances are alarming, darling/ The future is just a word/ That’s how I recall it.” He sounds like a hard drinkin’ Fievel The Mouse. Too cute.



Every song has that sad introspective flair with some enchanting string arrangements courtesy of Sean O’Hagan (High Llamas, Stereolab). Producers Jergen Traeen and HP Gunderson keep things simple with light, hidden sound effects and 1960s lounge-inspired arrangements (minus the camp). It’s a sugary birthday cake made of delicate butterfly wings.



Any songs that have that moody “Pet Sounds” flourish with Bacharach horns will always tug at my heartstrings. And when the last track “Maybe You’re Gone” throws in a sombre accordian… well, I could just burst. “The good may kill for your embrace/ To keep you far from those dreams/ You know you cannot dream/ I’m stuck for now it seems.”



As my pop culture bible Teen Vogue says of Lerche, “Sondre is melting hearts from here to Norway.” Well, yes he is and very soon he may just become as important as those who inspire him. He’s that good.



FABULOUS MUSCLES.

Xiu Xiu.

5RC. $18.99.



TWO WAY MONOLOGUE.

Sondre Lerche.

Virgin. $18.99.