Album of the Week, February 8: xx by the xx

TheXXxxRomy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim met at the Elliott School in London and formed a musical duo when both were 15. When they got ready to perform gigs, they added guitarist Baria Qureshi to the group, now called the xx. A year later, DJ and remix artist Jamie Smith (now known better as Jamie xx) joined in. The quartet developed a strong reputation for their distinctive less-is-more sound. They signed with British indie label Young Turks — an apt choice given that their debut came out before any of the performers broke 22. The result was the almost eponymous xx, a stellar debut that set the bar high and received nearly universal acclaim. With a spare sound that relies heavily on the spaces between the notes and the unique musical fusion of Croft and Sim’s voices, xx is hauntingly familiar and eerily alien all at once.

Title xx
Act The xx
Label Young Turks Release Date August 14, 2009
Producer Jamie Smith
U.S. Chart  92 U.K. Chart  3
Tracks
  1. Intro
  2. VCR
  3. Crystalised
  4. Islands
  5. Heart Skipped A Beat
  6. Fantasy
  7. Shelter
  8. Basic Space
  9. Infinity
  10. Night Time
  11. Stars

Things open with an instrumental that has become omnipresent. The honestly titled Intro is a minimalist fanfare that provides a perfect welcome to the proceedings. With a quietly chiming guitar figure repeated over an optimistic drone, the track builds to include propulsive — but not intrusive — percussion and eventually some wordless vocals. It’s such a perfect piece that multiple TV shows have licensed it to underscore scenes. Rarely does an album — or an act — introduce itself with such a crisp, clear statement of purpose.

VCR features more delightful open space, with a neat guitar riff and sprightly keyboard lines anchoring the reflective vocals. The juxtaposition of a very modern sound with a fairly archaic titular technology is a nice touch, setting the uncertain tone of the lyric. Croft and Sim trade verses before merging on a beautiful chorus. Crystalised features a more intricately blended vocal, offering the listener a first glimpse at the power the two voices gain together. An energetic track, it fades out abruptly with an admonition to “go slow,” another nice moment of word and music joining forces. Islands features a complex lyric about emotional exploration anchored by another deceptively simple musical framework. Laconically urgent, it sets another smart tone and features one of the nicest vocal mergers on the album.

Heart Skipped A Beat is the standout track, a longer, more ambitious look at need, loss, and cautious hope. Eschewing a verse-chorus-verse structure, it takes its own pace to explore the complications of a relationship. More than any other track, it shows off some of the xx’s roots — the lyrical structure is reminiscent of the best of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and the musical framework recalls Young Marble Giants — while simultaneously staking out the band’s own territory with clarity and precision.

Fantasy features only Sim’s vocals on a spare, echoing meditation. It’s an interesting piece and well sequenced to open up the disc after Heart Skipped, but a bit less interesting than most of the album. Croft takes a solo lead on the aching Shelter. Built over a keyboard frame that recalls classic 70s R&B ballads, it grows with a sparse urgency. The vocalists join forces again for Basic Space, a jaunty track with keyboard tweets and snappy snare bits. Given the openness of the xx sound, the request “don’t look away when there’s nothing there” works as another statement of musical intent while anchoring the emotional weight of the lyric.

On Infinity, things start slowly, building toward the title. Sim provides a quiet, aching vocal, eventually urging “give it up.” Croft’s counterpoint is a bolder vocal easing in with “I can’t give it up.” The juxtaposition is well executed, and the song suddenly surges to a climax with these lines alternating over an increasingly urgent musical figure. Night Time uses the cover of darkness to explore various approaches to the truth. It features one of the warmest guitar licks on the disc, providing a smart counterpoint to the pensive vocals, mostly Croft’s with perfect backing from Sim to underscore the risks that come with the dawn. The xx wrap things up with the lovely Stars, a cautiously optimistic look at the growth of a new romance and the need to manage expectations. The closing notes bring the musical journey to a lovely close on a softly hopeful note.

xx won the coveted Mercury prize, a rare accomplishment for a debut album. It has gone on to receive more acclaim and awards, winding up on many best of lists. Unlike many discs that receive such attention, it holds up over five years later, still providing a distinctly complete musical soundscape.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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