Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Xx 2009

Here’s a band that has gotten a ton of hype. Hailed as the next big thing just last year, this London band mixes minimalism with an ambient, chill out vibe and softly whispered vocals singing lyrics drenched in teenage angst.

I had somehow managed to miss the news when they arrived. I’m sure I at least read a review in Mojo, but if the review described their music at all accurately, I would have moved on quickly. I heard the disc when I was in an upscale stereo store last month listening to this ridiculously good system that cost close to six figures, and the Xx were playing. So I ordered it.

For what it is, it’s a good record. It’s well recorded (and it did sound wonderful on that world class stereo). The music is minimalist in the same way as, say, the third Velvet Underground album, but without that record’s rock base. Spacey keyboards, ultra-simplistic guitar lines, and (here comes the really bad news) electronic beats straight from hip-hop and everywhere else these days. The organic sound of a real drummer might have helped, but I suppose I’m just too old to "get it" in this instance. I’ve never really liked drum machines, and the new beat generators and samplers don’t improve on that sound.

On top of the sparse sound, the two singers, guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim sing in soft whispered tones that are really the best thing about this band. Their male-female harmonies are excellent (Croft has the better voice), and their voices are unique and interesting together. Jamie Smith adds beats and MPC (sampler), and Baria Queshi plays keyboards and guitar.

After I got the record, I played it several times as background music while something else was going on, and I really thought I liked it. Then I put headphones on and gave it a thorough listening in preparation for this writing. Here are some of my notes: sparse sound; clean recording; like early U2, not much instrumental talent; too much electronic drums; nothing moves fast.

There were some highlights. VCR has a great vocal duet and uses the primitive guitar sound to good effect. Crystalised has a slightly threatening mid-tempo pop sound with spooky distant female backing vocals. Shelter is a yearning love song with a nice guitar part. Basic Space has strange harmonies that somehow work.

Islands sounds like dragging Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac through a two-note version of Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark, and that is not a good thing. The rest is so minimal as to be, well, boring. Good napping music, if you need music to nap by. The record goes very slowly nowhere. Yes, the vocals are good. But minimalism here is taken to such an extreme that you really wonder if these guys could play any faster. And the sampled beats are irritating and don’t seem to do much for the overall sound. The teenage angst is over the top. I know I’m old, but really. Sixties girl groups didn’t whine this much.

It’s popular. It’s the next big thing. It will be so last week in another month. If you really like chill-out, it might be worth your money. Against the tide of popular opinion, not at all recommended.

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