Hints of Beats: The xx’s Debut Album

Apr 8th, 2015 | By | Category: Album No. 1002, Reviews

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The xx is an elegant band, from its austere graphic design with its monochrome color scheme to its stark, skeletal music. On the surface, its sound seems so simple: warm folk vocals over cold dubstep beats (minimalist early British dubstep beats, as opposed to maximalist later US dubstep, AKA brostep, beats), but I have spent the last week realizing just how simplistic this simple assumption really is.

Of course, there is nothing new about this type of crossbreeding. In 1990, Suzanne Vega’s folk vocals were grafted onto a Soul II Soul beat to create the, at first, unauthorized “Tom’s Diner (DNA Remix)” (which became a much bigger hit than the original version when A&M officially released it with Vega’s blessing). By 1995, bands like Everything but the Girl were hiring producer/remixers like Todd Terry to turn stalled singles into huge hits like “Missing (Todd Terry remix).”

Given his side gigs as remixer and DJ, it’s easy to cast Jamie Smith (AKA Jamie xx) in the role of DNA or Todd Terry to the rest of band. However, The xx have a far more integrated sound than that. This is not a collection of Jamie xx remixes of folk duo Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s songs, though Croft and Sim did start as a duo when they were just 15. (Baria Qureshi was also in the band for a while and worked on the album, but was gone shortly after its release.) The band’s name is the Roman numeral for the age they all were when they released their debut five years later.

As far as I know, there are no extant recordings of the duo (or trio) before Smith joined them. However, there are a few solo recordings a young Croft made as O Lousy Tired Gal floating around the web (I’ve collected a few on my own blog). They are very nice demos, but extremely earnest “chill out” folk songs of the sort collected on the still quite enjoyable 2001 compilation, A Quiet Riot.

Lovelorn lyrics are still at the heart of the band’s mid-tempo songs. On some of the best, like “Basic Space” and “Shelter,” Croft and Sim both sing about finding love, but it is unclear whether the lovers are actually addressing each other directly or fantasizing about what they would sing if they ever worked up enough nerve. “Stars,” in particular, plays up this star-crossed melancholy. They sound like two lonely teenagers pining away for each other, alone in their bedrooms, never realizing the other feels exactly the same way.

In principle, The xx are similar to the legendary Young Marble Giants, which also features subdued female vocals over a minimal background. But as basic as the sound of the classic Colossal Youth album is, it’s clearly indie rock, with its detached vocals, strummed guitar riffs and metronomic drum machine. The xx clearly embrace Timbaland’s stripped R&B aesthetic, as evidenced by their cover of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire” as a bonus track, along with Womack & Womack’s “Teardrops” and Kyla’s “Do You Mind?” The same goes for the vocals. Croft’s crooning may actually be more indie R&B than folk, somewhat reminiscent of EBTG’s Tracey Thorn, which offers a nice counterpoint to Sim’s nasal tone in their duets.

I first heard The xx’s “VCR” on some TV show. (Their songs have been very popular on soundtracks, especially the instrumental “Intro,” which has even been sampled by Rihanna.) I was immediately captured by the band’s minimal sound. Of course, it didn’t hurt that “VCR” carries just a hint of David Bowie’s “‘Heroes,'” one of my very favorite songs of all time.

The xx’s sound is full of hints. including hints of beats. Although the band’s music is very percussive, the beat is seldom carried by drums, which seem to drift in and out for occasional emphasis. Instead, the beats tend to be carried by plucked and processed guitar strings or tapped keyboard notes. And the beats are irregular, seemingly synced to the natural cadences of the singing voices instead of the unnatural rigidity of most programmed beats, leading to a far more organic sound. Turns out the beats are as warm as the vocals.

Details:

        • Artist: The xx
        • Title: xx
        • Year of release: 2009
        • Year of first hearing by writer: 2009
        • Label of original release: Young Turks
        • Format listened to: CD
        • Track Listing
        • Purchase from Amazon: xx
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