Pop stars wear black, too: The xx come to Minneapolis

By Peter Walters

The xx, the xx. The name is simple-fitting for this quartet hailing from Southwest London. The group of 20-year-olds started playing together back in 2005. Friends since high school, they’ve made their way in this world, with a highly successful recent release. They released their self-titled debut on Aug. 18, 2009, storming the blogosphere and American radio. Pitchfork placed them on the Best New Music list and a highly respectable ranking of 8.7, no easy feat for a band’s debut release. This summer it seemed like critics in every circle shook hands on this one. The xx are the new next best thing they agreed. Naturally, upon hearing this news I needed to have a listen for myself. The first track, entitled “Intro”, does a great job of introducing the sound that carries throughout the record. The clean reverbed guitars, relaxed walking bass lines, synths,and intertwined voices all show up in succession. The first three tracks of the album bring you into the artists’ world and keep you there. “VCR” follows “Intro” on a poppy upbeat note, talking about the joys of a relationship that revolves around watching things on video cassette. “VCR” is followed by “Crystalized”, which has enjoyed plenty of air time as a single released before the album. It gets played on the Current a couple times a day. It features the xx’s patented call and response vocals, continuing the dialogue of the two lead singers, talking about romance through epic, nature referencing innuendos. These first three are more energetic, with the rest of the album slipping into a cool, dark atmosphere.

The album’s smoothness is part of what makes it so appealing. Lead singer and guitar player Romy Madley Croft’s voice never wavers. She is quiet and emotive, and is smooth enough to sound as if her voice were being filtered through three separate baths of melted butter, gold, and chocolate. Her tone makes her half of the dialogue sound genuine. You begin to wonder if they are singing just what they happen to be thinking in the moment, true stories put to melodies. This authenticity along with the album’s simplicity combine to create the masterpiece that has so far been loved by so many. I think a lot of alternative rock connoisseurs got lost in the complications that music presented in the early 2000s. Noise rock, Electronica, Post-everything and lo-fi beyond the point of recognition. Don’t get me wrong, I have loved each and every one of those directions that music has taken, but there seems to be a reactionary vein of new music. Look at a band like Girls, they’ve blown up just as quickly as the xx, and they’ve built themselves on 1960s pop modified with modern drug addled lyrics. People want music with melodies, catchy choruses, and a twist.

I think what Girls and the xx both have in common (besides both being pushed hard by media mogul Pitchfork) is that they were doing their own thing, completely autonomous from what was happening around them. Music from Girls 2009 release Album doesn’t seem to take influence from any other contemporary artists. Besides looking like they stepped off of a VW van, the group produced several heroin chic music videos to accompany the release of their album. Ultimately it showed off how they had created their own world out in San Francisco. The xx look like they stepped out of the DeLorean from “Back to the Future”. They’re clad all in black, the uniform to represent the subtleness of their music. They want you to think of dark colors when you hear them. This uniformity between them makes it seem as though they emerged from some secret micro colony hiding out in the abandoned factories of South London. Combined with the stripped down nature of their music, it makes them highly intriguing.

Back to the Future? Back to the music. Just as Croft and Sim’s voices intermesh nicely, their clean guitar and bass melodies complement each other beautifully, dancing around each other and uniting at moments. Their interactions are intricate, forming harmonies at some moments, using polyrhythms at others to fill out the sound, and staying quiet at other times to use silence to fill empty space. Their string playing is well complemented by tasteful ambience on the keys by Baria Qureshi. Filling out the background, interestingly enough, is a drum machine manned by the band’s fourth member and producer Jamie Smith. While most musical attempts to supply the entire rhythm section through the use of a live recorded beat machine are questionable, Smith is a mater of his craft. The best part of all of this is that every member knows when and what to contribute to the songs. The tracks are light and airy, but they never feel as though they are lacking.

It’s been refreshing to hear such a young band create something genuinely enjoyable and easy to listen to beginning to end. Getting through an album can be a chore for some bands, but the xx make it easy. XX by the xx has a completely original sound, rich in texture from the emptiness it boxes up with simple melodies and delivers to the listener. So listen to it at night, and picture yourself next to Romy Croft and the rest of the xx, making music quietly in her parents’ basement. You won’t be disappointed.

The xx will be playing at the Triple Rock Social club on November 30th.