Review by Heather Phares
Debuts as fully formed and confident as the xx's self-titled first album are rare, but then, there is very little that is typical about this band or their music. Their influences are wide-ranging — traces of post-punk, dream pop, dubstep, indie pop, and R&B pop up at any given moment — but are focused into songs that are as simple as they are unique and mysterious. These tracks are so sleek, they're practically sculptural, and they boast impeccably groomed arrangements. The beats pulse rather than crash; the guitars are artfully picked and plucked; and the vocals rarely rise above a wistful sigh. This restraint and sophistication make the fact that the xx's members were barely in their twenties when they recorded the album all the more impressive; artists twice their age would be proud to call the maturity and confidence that flow seemingly effortlessly through the xx their own. Even their song titles are the perfect mix of concise and evocative: "Stars," "Shelter," "Night Time" (actually, all of their songs could be named this — they're that intimate and sleepily cool). The moody, monochromatic sound the xx sets forth on "Intro" is lovely enough, but it's how the band subtly shifts and tweaks it on each track that makes the album truly special. "VCR"'s innocent guitars hint at the band's fondness for Young Marble Giants' radically simple indie pop, while "Infinity" leans more heavily on their post-punk roots, and "Heart Skips a Beat" underscores its name with wittily fractured rhythms. And while singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim sound good on their solo turns (Sim particularly shines on the spacious "Fantasy"), together they're truly inspired — the aloof sensuality they generate makes romantic intrigue actually intriguing again. "Crystalised" might be one of the more intense songs here, but it still carries the confessional quality of a conversation between lovers, reaffirming what "heart-to-heart" really means. The standout "Basic Space" takes Croft and Sim's push-pull chemistry in an even more pop direction, but it's still awash in subtly fascinating details like its exotically rolling beat and Durutti Column-esque guitars. While the band's subtlety and consistency threaten to work against them at times, XX is still a remarkable debut that rewards repeated listens and leaves listeners wanting more.
The xx are four 20-year-olds from South London who make predominantly slow, furtive pop music, mostly about sex. They are also one of the stranger recipients of UK hype in recent memory. They have no calling-card song; members of the Pitchfork staff have ID'd no fewer than four songs ("Basic Space", "Crystalised", "Islands", "Infinity") as "the one." They are not fashion plates, nor likely to be. Their list of influences is potent but imperfect: Young Marble Giants (too shaggy and heavy-lidded); Japan (too robust and theatric); Glass Candy (too quick and glammy). Without one gimmick song they'll never be able to reproduce, without an alternate agenda, without a set-in-stone hip influence, the xx start to sound like a real actual band, even if, after dozens of listens, it's nearly incomprehensible to think that a group so fresh-faced produced xx.
Strongly influenced by modern R&B-- the group made hay with an early cover of Womack & Womack's "Teardrops", while UK copies of xx come packed with their version of Aaliyah's "Hot Like Fire"-- the xx use a drum machine to complement their copiously tidy compositions. Unlike contemporary R&B fetishists Hot Chip or Discovery, who have clearly spent long hours internalizing Timbaland, the Neptunes, and other radio cognoscenti, the xx incorporate more abstract elements of the genre: a liberal use of bass tones and an unwavering focus on sex and interpersonal relationships.
Singer-guitarist Romy Madley Croft in particular seems all but incapable of uttering a line that isn't a come-on, a post-coital musing, or a longing apology for a lack of one of the former. During "Islands" or "Basic Space", her voice takes on a pleasant soft-pop vibe, like Stevie Nicks'. When Madley Croft sings, during "Shelter", "Maybe I had said/ Something that was wrong/ Can I make it better/ With the lights turned on," it's unclear whether lights-turned-on activity is sex or... something besides sex. She's not some purring kitten, though, merely reflective about a subject we don't often associate with teenagers and self-awareness.
Croft's sparring partner, bassist Oliver Sim, usually fills in the other spaces via either his responsive vocals or ever-present bass. (His best trick: momentarily interrupting the divine verses of "Islands" with four short thumbings). Sim's voice, papery and affectless, is a sticking point for some, but pop music has plenty of room for ugly male voices, especially those with such pleasant friends. Importantly, both Croft and Sim seem like they're singing not because they have the best voices but because they have the most to say (and, purely speculatively, possibly to one another), something that would align them with an indie rock tradition as long as the genre is old, (and folk and blues long before that).
Their voices provide plenty of friction, however, in the context of the xx's slight, expert compositions. Working without a live drummer, the xx manipulate airy, lingering negative space as well as any band going. Initially hospital-tile sterile, xx rewards volume and repetition like few other albums this year. Nudge the knob clockwise to hear sparse guitars decay, bass notes wobble. Amid these delicate environs, Croft and Sim can seem like they're working on different agendas, but the cagey back-and-forth on "Basic Space" is exquisitely timed, and the lovers' mumbles of "Heart Skipped a Beat", over a clacking drum machine, acquire their own weird logic. Jamie Smith (he of the "Basic Space" remix) and Baria Qureshi are responsible for most of the drums/loops/keyboards (and some of the guitars), and they're adept at knowing when to jump in, picking up "Stars" just as Sim seems to get bored with it, spicing "VCR", the band's quaintest, simplest pop song ("You/ You just know/ You just do"), with small xylophone melodies.
That all said, the record is not a complete break with recent sounds: tune in during certain moments of "Crystalised", and you'll hear the flecked, staccato guitars of Interpol. "Infinity"'s slow-strummed electric chords feel like late-period Radiohead. But xx is nervy and self-contained, the product of a new band thinking a lot harder about topics-- sex, composition, volume-- than we are accustomed to new bands thinking. It is so fully formed and thoughtful that it feels like three or four lesser, noisier records should have preceded it. The xx didn't need a gestation period, though xx is nuanced, quiet, and surprising enough that you might.
— Andrew Gaerig, August 28, 2009