The xx: xx
Recently out of school, London’s the xx are the latest indie pop superstars in the UK, pulling dream pop elegance to meet R & B beats halfway, with the result being a totally unique record. With an understated maturity and a comprehensive knowledge of what just works, the xx have released one of the most exquisite (and minimalist) debut albums in recent years.
The infusion of minimalism and beauty with that touch of indie elitism in their music is perfectly captured by their cover art, which features a simplistic white X on a stark black background. Forget the notion that layered grandiosity or musical virtuosity marks a great record. The xx are here to show you that all it takes is a tremendous balance, a peculiar sort of nonchalance, doctored beats and vocal yin yang. There’s a simplicity that seems unintentional, almost serendipitous, because of how easily the xx turn what could be bland and boring into eleven unique songs. There is not a note, not a beat which is out of place or dispensable on these songs. The xx are masters of musical brevity in a way that no one else in the recent past has been.
The xx are Romy Madley Croft (vocals/guitar), Oliver Sim (vocals/bass), Baria Qureshi (guitar/keys) and Jamie Smith (beats/producer). Hailing from south London, these four twenty-year-olds are alumni of the Elliott school, famous for producing notable acts such as Four Tet, Hot Chip, Burial, and the Maccabees. Jamie Smith is the real key to the xx’s sound. Despite the lack of a drummer in the band, his crisp beats provide the subtle power that drives the otherwise bleak sound forward. Slow, pensive moments are often broken up or undermined by these dramatic, almost dance pop-like beats.
The voices of Croft and Sim stretch like a membrane over the skeleton of the music, which forlornly chugs along. However, it cannot be said that Croft and Sim are trading off lines; it often feels as though they are on the opposite sides of a long room, and can only faintly hear what the other is saying, as best seen in the delicate “Crystalised”. They finish each other’s lines, but with that same sense of accidental effortlessness which seeps through the entire fabric of their sound.
It’s hard to believe that such simplicity in perfection, such perfection in simplicity, could be achieved on a debut.
There’s no sudden movement of energy or purpose, though; that’s the best thing about the xx. There’s a strange feeling of suspension: from gravity, from pretense, from the compulsion to make a good pop song; all of this results in a mood of a sort of musical meditation, austere and introspective. It’s the perfect background music for those moments of often torturous self-doubt keeping you up at 3 a.m.
The entire album is drenched with a sense of overwhelming half-heartedness. It’s as if the band has made the music entirely for itself, and the request to make it public is met in a most disaffected way. This touch of reluctance gives the sound that subtle feeling of restraint which lends itself beautifully to the skeletal nature of the music.
Musically, the melancholy blurs out the slick beats and simultaneously focuses them, marking out the xx as entirely unique. Closest to their sound would be Cardiff’s Young Marble Giants, who have in common the elusive fragility and the sharp beats. In the wounded melodies of CocoRosie, the xx find another kinship. However, ‘xx”s sound is entirely its own. Vocally, adequacy in complementing the desolation of the sound is achieved; however, lyrically there is a level of intricacy that is still yearning to be manifested. It would have been nice if the xx had written stark, concise lyrical gems to match up to the emaciated sound. However, this seems to be the stuff of future albums.
A standout track is the brawny “Intro” which definitely serves its purpose by drawing the listener in but also presents a disclaimer: the other tracks are nowhere as structured as this one, and in fact don’t sound much like it, barring the excellent beats. Tinkling xylophones clink you into “VCR”, and introduce the ethereal vocal talents of Croft and Sim. The muffled beats on “Basic Space” make it almost Deerhoof-esque in its delectable deconstruction. Nearly all the tracks on the album are worth a justified mention — from the somehow-solemn handclaps on “Heart Skipped a Beat” to Croft’s heart-rending confessions on the stark dream-pop of “Night Time”. A slight falter occurs on the lugubrious “Fantasy”. Somehow, the combination of Oliver Sim’s floaty voice lost in the fog of the ambient reverberations, and the creepily slow music, make it little more than a prolonged prologue to Croft’s only solo on the album, “Shelter”.
With the xx, the empty spaces become as elemental to the record as any note or beat that is actually in the songs. Truly remarkable of this London quartet is their ability to structure the voids snugly around the music in a way that few others can think of, let alone execute. The xx are not scared to let the silence speak for itself, resulting in a curiously fruitful barrenness.
‘Xx’ is all about opposites. The stark white on black greets you. The breathy female vocals spar with the fuller male vocals. Mere bony beats are stringed together to make a healthy body in a manner that is both haphazard and precise. The negative space and the music coalesce in harmony. The xx make this enormous complexity work with an ease that often leaves one slack-jawed in awe.
It’s hard to believe that such simplicity in perfection, such perfection in simplicity, could be achieved on a debut. The band seems to have accidentally chanced upon a mood, a sonic quality, which sounds airy, yet effortlessly so structured yet unpredictable, bare yet complete.
Unfortunately, the magic fades by small amounts on repeated listens. The lack of excessive detail or layering (or excessive anything, really) makes sure that this is one of those albums which rewards the listener the most on the first few listens. Eventually, the emptiness of the sonic landscapes gets to you; you may feel compelled to listen to some crass hip-hop in order to suppress the bleakness, introspection and restraint which this record invokes in you. But after all that’s said, for a debut record of a band whose members are each as old as the band name suggests (xx: 20), what the xx have achieved is something remarkable. X marks the spot, in this case. The xx have arrived, and they’re here to stay.