Saturday, October 4, 2014

Discovering The xx

Proof of purchase.  The first two CDs by The xx along with some MP3s not available on the CDs that I downloaded from amazon. The minimalist style of the band is reflected in the packaging of their CDs.  Both have a X die-cut into the cover with an opposite color booklet of photos and lyrics pushed into the sleeve.  The booklets contain only lyrics and song titles and the words "Thank You" at the bottom of each back.  There are no song writing credits, production credits, no copyright information, nor are the members of the band even mentioned.  No one gets any credit for anything - just lyrics and titles and some artsy photos.  I don't recall seeing such detail in intended ambiguity like this before. 
Jennifer and I were talking about the film The Great Gatsby a couple of weeks ago.  We had both seen the Robert Redford version but wanted to see the 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio version.  I was checking Netflix but it only had the older version, which I honestly wouldn't mind seeing again, but I was in the mood for DiCaprio.  I think DiCaprio might the most under decorated actor of our time. He has delivered a number of great performances.

Anyway, when researching the new version I noticed the soundtrack was weird.  It was not a period soundtrack.  It was full of hip hop, alt rock, and other postmodern styles.  Jay Z and Jack White were on there.  For a 1920's period film.  In reviewing the musical selections I saw a song called "Together" by The xx.  I played it on my stereo off my iPad through my big stereo system.  It was a wonderful surprise.

The xx is an indie rock, techno, new age, minimalist band. According to the wiki article on them they are classified in the musical genre known as "dream pop", which is a new genre for me.  To the ear they perform songs of angst and uncertainty and love and desire, a perfect tune mix for the 20-something and under zeitgeist.  The band has three members and they do not try to sound like anything more than a trio.  The in-studio effects and overdubs are kept to a minimum compared with most bands.

Their sonic range is also somewhat restricted.  Not in a bad way.  You can comfortably crank up their music and not worry about being blow away by a sudden torrid guitar solo or screaming vocals. These moments do not exist.  By no means do I wish to imply The xx is flat or boring or routine. Far from it.  Each song is unique and extremely interesting to listen to (at times sounding techno, at times space music, at times just introverted indie rock).  They simply have a style that will not blow out your receiver.  Their force is a subtle sophisticated articulation that does not require acute modulation.

The xx lyrics are often stark.  They are steeped in flip, confident, and cynical late-teen and early adulthood attitude. They are deeply intimate, sometimes doubting, sometimes willing to take a chance, always prepared to deal with whatever arises through understanding and association and even fearlessness in the face of vague hopes, ill-defined goals, and a undercurrent of rage and passion.  These strong lyrics combine with the sturdy steady minimalist rock to create a very satisfying musical experience that can serve equally as conversational party music or as the basis for a sensuous make-out session.

The band formed in 2005 when long-time friends Oliver Sim (bass, vocals) and Romy Madley Croft (guitar, vocals) teamed with guitarist Baria Qureshi.  In 2006, Jamie Smith joined as a percussionist.  Qureshi lasted into the group's debut album in 2009 but was basically kicked out of the band by the other members during the tour following the album's release. Apparently, there were some tensions and differences of opinion about the music and the band's direction.  The xx has continued as a trio ever since.

xx (2009) was a critically acclaimed record (it is currently 74 on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest debut albums of all time) and was a cultish hit among concert goers.  The band was soon headlining their own shows and generated quite a following.  The band won the Mercury Prize in 2010.  Their second album, Coexist, was released in 2012 to continued high praise and growing popularity.  In addition to the standard album mixes, Jamie Smith has mixed several extended versions of their songs for dance club settings. (These are available on separate MP3 downloads at places like amazon.) Whereas most songs by The xx are brief 3-4 minutes in length, these club mixes go as long as 8-12 minutes and feature more robust mixing and instrumentation than is typically heard on the band's first two albums.  A third album is supposedly in the works now.

Jennifer and I have been captivated by the band's music ever since I bought the two CDs and their associated MP3s.  I have listened more intensely than Jennifer to each album several times.  There are simply no weak moments on either of them. Every song is really excellent, reflecting high-quality talent in songwriting and performing by Croft and Sim.  On the first album they tended to write separately but they wrote more as a duo on the second album, indicating a unity and an evolution in their artistic maturation.

As we listened to this music over the past few weeks Jennifer often piped in with "Wow, that's a great song" and "I like this song" and "This is a really good song."  To which I always replied "They are all good songs.  There are no bad The xx songs." And this is true.  Be that as it may, for the purposes of this post, I do have some favorites, beginning with the first record...

"Intro" is an instrumental track that sounds very familiar. This seems to be a favorite among fans. There is a four-hour edit of this available on youtube if you care to get totally neurotic with this catchy little tune.  "VCR" is a semi-hit song that features some really nice vocals.  My favorite tune from the first album is "Crystallized."  It sounds tough and edgy and has a nice beat.  "Islands" (nice video) is another strong song that reminds me a bit of early material by The Police. "Heart Skipped A Beat" is a very good tune with some excellent synthesized moments.  My second favorite tune is probably "Shelter" which starts slow but builds to a biting ballad about the age-old rock theme of getting back together following a break up.  The subject is kind of clich√© but the actual delivery of it is fresh and vibrant, one of the band's strongest songs.

Coexist is not as strong an album overall as the debut effort but that is not too big a swipe at it. The band's second record is still solid and worthy of repeat hearings.  For me the highlights include "Angels" a tune that drew a lot of new fans into the fold.  Great lyrics on this one. "Chained" has a great rhythm and blues feel to it that talks about how even the closest relationships can change.  "Fiction" builds into a nice simple dance piece. "Swept Away" shows once more how the Croft-Sim vocal duo is something special. There are times when Sim sounds a bit like John Mayer in his delivery, though intentionally without Mayer's range.  The song evolves into a catchy dance beat that is very appealing. 

The xx is a grand discovery and Jennifer and I are eager to hear their next album whenever it becomes available.  It may seem somewhat odd that two 50-somethings connect so well with music that geared more toward 20-somethings just out of college and looking fresh at life.  But, for me, that is precisely what I connect with.  Despite all the angst and undercurrents of unfulfilled longing, this music inspires me. It makes me feel young again when I listen to it.  I feel their pain, their doubt, and most importantly their striving and yearning and hope. It is all there in their highly accessible music and it gives me reason to want more, just as the trio of Croft-Sim-Smith so obviously want to deliver more here at the start of their careers.

Very Late Note:  The xx played at a gala affair sponsored by Christian Dior at the prestigious Guggenheim Museum last week.  Not many musicians get this type of exposure and it shows what a stylish and elite band they are becoming.  A rising force in artsy music.

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