Monday, September 7, 2009

Marks The Spot

The xx: xx (2009) [Young Turks]

This is weird. I've been listening to this album a fair bit recently, and the result of my listening to this album has been that I love this album. If we at TMITM were in the business of putting things in a nutshell - which I'm pretty sure we aren't - I'd say that it's a very good record. But something happened, as I was seeking ways to put my case for this record being very good: I selected a song that I really like, from the album - all the while rubbing my hands gleefully, and muttering, "hoo-wee! They're going to love this one!" - and then I made of that song a widget. You know, this sort of thing:

And the thing is, I've just listened to it again, on the "widget", and it doesn't sound good. I've got to admit it. All the qualities in it that I loved and cherished, that made my heart skip, saunter and verily frolic, seem to have melted into an insipid puddle of self-regarding, tinny shoe-gaze. I blame The Widget, people. Because listening to it elswhere - and, crucially, in the context of this well-crafted, intelligent, charming album - I find again that loveliness: the precise guitar and the gentle, knowing vocals; the excellent, reverbing bass; the crackling, rumbling noises that kick the song off, which have so much Bjorkish texture. I love the way his dry, languid voice enfolds her hazy singing. What is wonderful about it is the way it hints at atmospheric indie bands of yesteryear while embracing modern beats and sounds - particularly in the bass, which repeats nicely throughout.

The xx are a London band who seem to be flavour of the month with certain music critics. They've just released this, their first album (I think; it's difficult to Google a band with such a retarded name), having graduated from one of those arty-farty London musical colleges along with people like Burial. I see them in a trend of music at the moment that encompasses people like Lykke Li and Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, in being interested in minimalism while still taking its cue from contemporary music: the bass and drum-machine, throughout this album, create recurring patterns that nod to hip-hop, and there's also something mildly dance-y to their indie shtick.

At the same time, I find it annoyingly hard to put into words what I like about them: it's something really pathetic and indefinable along the lines of finding them winsome and endearing, which really isn't good enough. But all I know is that when 'VCR' - the first song proper, after a predictably meh intro - burst through, with its winning xylophone start giving way to some whirring bass and a clipped beat and the duo's beautiful boy-girl vocals on the sweet chorus, my heart skipped a beat. Which allows me to segue most revoltingly into the song 'Heart Skipped A Beat' (Jesus, I make myself sick sometimes. I really do), which is another stone cold winner for me, on this album replete with loveliness. Over a smart sort of clickety beat, Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft - for those are their names - do their gentle Nancy & Lee thing while really killing it on their bass and guitar respectively; there's also a kind of distilled Be My Baby beat, softly thumped on a big drum - and handclaps. It all adds up to a good, exciting carpet of sound. That's right: an exciting carpet. Suck on that, Aladdin.

It really is an album to be cherished for its textures, though: the production is crisp and interesting, with great depth of sound coming from pedal-steel and reverbed instruments and echoing vocals. Add to this a gentleness in the singing and lyrics, and chuck in how incredibly neatl all the lines are - particularly the guitar - and you've got so much to listen to in every song; at every turn you hear a new thing to spike your curiosity. Besides the afore-mentioned songs, I recommend 'Crystalised' (for the plucky guitar) and - perhaps best of all - 'Infinity' (for its beautiful, stately pedal-steel and the great whips of beat which erupt here and there). But this is an album full of treasures and only the occasional misstep ('Fantasy', which I find turgid).

I'm giving this record the full Ebert two opposable digits because I think that is has real heart and sincerity, which are difficult to pull off when you're working in The xx's mode, which is low-key and sparse: there is real chemistry between the singers, and their simple stories really work in this context. I'm thinking of the wonderful song 'Islands' here, and its beautiful line, "I am yours now/So I don't ever have to leave". The xx are not like other bands, and this excellent, rewarding record is not like other records. Give it some love and it will love you right back.


Spender said...

I giggled over the "Nancy and Lee" reference just because it tickles me that someone recalls their duets. Priceless.
I had been avoiding this one precisely because it is "flavor of the month" with certain among "those" critics but based on your excellent and most eloquent review, I'm going to give it a shot and hope that it's as good as advertised. Nice work, Caspar.

Sean said...

It's not the kind of thing I usually go for, but the song does have a nice vibe. It seems like it would be something I'd enjoy playing at work; not too intrusive, you know?

Really nice review, Caspar.

chris said...

Just listened to this album last night. Great stuff. There's a remix of "Basic Space" by Pariah that's really good too that amps up the minimalism, but I can dig the quiet crispness of the original too.

Spender said...

Just listened and it was definitely worth my investment. Not my favorite cd this year but I'll put it in my top five new artists category.

Dropout! said...

Already liked the CD, and I agree with the review. Looking at the track names, I kind of gag, but the music is just so pretty.