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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘xx’ marks the spot

Published: October 9, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

London’s been the birthplace of many musical movements, but in recent years dubstep and grime have received quite a bit of focus. And then there’s the foursome of 20 year olds that make up the South London band, The XX. Working under the influences of modern R&B, their stripped down airy tunes sound like dubstep that’s deconstructed and put back together to sound something a lot like R&B.

Their debut album “xx” is all the more remarkable, not only for the band members’ ages but for the fact that it was self produced. Working without a drummer, they are served more than competently by a drum machine. A moody album with taut instrumental work, it’s music is perfect for dusk and night-time, complete with the alternately plaintive and satiated vocals of Romy Madley Croft, their singer and guitarist.

Much of the album’s percussive force actually comes from the impressive bass work of Oliver Sim, who also contributes vocals. The tension and counterpoint of the bass provides interest and conflict to tunes that veer neatly between pop to art rock. Not since the Postal Service’s “Give Up” has there been a pop electronica album of such interest.

But where the Postal Service leans to the saccharine, The XX are far moodier and, in a way, despite their younger-in-age status, more adult. It might be dubstep influence; it’s certainly audible in their sample/drum machine work and there’s a bit of Burial buried deep in the instrumentals. It’s not quite ambient, definitely not electro-pop, but it’s both fresh and refreshing.

“Islands” is an instant standout, a gorgeous up-tempo love song that might be more about codependency. The highlight is the ersatz chorus, with both Madley Croft and Sim singing, “I am yours now/So I don’t ever have to leave/I’ve been found out/So now I’ll never explore.” There’s a hazy sense of love, desire, and paralysis conveyed in both their wavering voices, perfectly accentuated by the underlying rhythms as they lilt upwards with that first proclamation.

What The XX has done is strip pop of many of its musical trappings, such as the verse-chorus-verse structure, using and discarding choruses that any other songwriter would repeat at least four times before fading out. Instead, The XX ends several songs by slowing down, deconstructing the beat and messing with drum machines and samples, slowing the pace before concluding.

Their talent extends far beyond the music, though. The lyrics set the mood perfectly, striking a balance between minimalism and profundity while skirting the sort of overwrought banality Chris Martin tends to fall into. It’s not a happy record by any means, but it is a smoky, emotional one. It’s just that most of those emotions, even love and desire, are filtered by the music’s tone of self-reflection, doubt, brooding insecurity, and a sense of isolation and negative space. Above all, there’s no better way to describe “xx” than ‘intimate.’

Maybe I had said something that was wrong/Can I make it better with the lights turned on?” Madley Croft sings in “Shelter,” making the line sound like both a come-on and a lament. It’s followed by “Basic Space”, which has the most experimental instrumentation and sampling on the album.

The concluding song, “Stars” shows progress from the uneasiness of openers “Intro” and “VCR,” concluding in a reflection that wouldn’t be amiss looking up at the sky: “If stars shouldn’t shine/By the very first time/Then dear it’s fine, so fine by me/Because we can give it time.” The quiet romanticism of Sim’s voice, its wistfulness, provides the ideal end to the album, even if it’s not the epic album closer bands tend to favor.

I’ll grant that there’s a definite musical sameness to the album. The territory they’re covering seems somewhat new, but The XX is focusing on a very specific set of sounds. The album does sound unified, and there’s no filler, but I’m eagerly awaiting a follow-up in which we see these obviously talented musicians branch out, applying their sensibilities to a more diverse sonic range. The fact remains, though, that “xx” is a killer debut.