The xx with their muted, sparse, indie dance, soul pop, is a success story that shows that hanging back in the shadows, rather than parading in the spotlight, may actually be the best way to become successful.
In 2010 the album won the Mercury Music prize and was featured in many Best of lists for 2009 as either best album of the year (The Guardian) or at least in the top 5 – NME No.2, Chicago Tribune No.4, Pitchfork No.3. In the US, NBC used the low-key instrumental opening track, Intro, for their Olympics coverage as did the BBC for their coverage of the general election. In 2011 Rihanna sampled the same track for the song, Drunk On Love from her album Talk That Talk. Countless TV shows have used their music. This debut by an unknown band of teenagers from Wandsworth (recorded in a garage) is well on the way to selling 500,000 copies in England. They are young, they are considered the sound of young Britain.
When I hear Intro, I only hear an ok instrumental track – it seems improbable that it would be used around the world, by mega-stars and commercial TV stations alike. The fact that the Guardian made The xx the best album of 2009 is surprising. That’s not to say I don’t like it, it’s not to say it isn’t a good album, it’s just the way that the buzz gets around and pours into every crack of the media whilst the hipsters also give it their approval. Another band like say London Grammar, might wonder why it didn’t happen for them – yet – or ever. Yes it’s a mystery and these understated, hushed tracks recorded at night, have turned on a generation and TV execs alike. There was a time when the hip young folks and the TV execs didn’t ever come into contact with each other, didn’t live on the same planet – how times have changed.
To me The xx sound like a soft New Order with shared male and female vocals but it’s that understatement that sets them apart – the space inbetween. They also remind me of Everything But The Girl, Romy Madley-Croft on guitar and vocals like a young Tracey Thorn (and perhaps Oliver Sim on bass and vocals with whom she started this band as a duo when they were 15) is her Ben Watt. Baria Qureshi joined on guitar in 2005, Jamie Smith on beats in 2006, although Qureshi was gone in the release year of the debut album. Smith has gone on to critical acclaim in his own right as a remixer and has worked with Radiohead and picked up a Grammy for production work with Alicia Keys.
After the surprising success of the opener, the next track, VCR has the intonation of Bowie’s Heroes but at their age they probably didn’t know that, they weren’t born when that song came out. A simple single note clean guitar and bass drum, some background plinks and plonks and a shared vocal between Madley-Croft and Sim. It’s well…understated.
Crystalised (covered by Gorillaz as well as Martina Topley -Bird and Mark Lanegan with Warpaint) has that same guitar idea as the previous track with the interchanging vocalists, separate then together. Weird synth sounds in the background. It was the first single from the album and has that indefinable appeal.
Islands is more electronic sounding, although interestingly the guitar and bass play a large roll in creating the figures, it’s almost like the string instruments are imitating the electronics and that in itself is an original idea.
The lyrics seem less interesting relationship scenarios but having said that, aren’t they too young to have had much experience with relationships? And yet here they are sounding so mature, writing about them, this too is an intriguing element.
Heart Skipped A Beat couldn’t be simpler with that single note guitar and a clapping drum machine, this one sounds like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, except there’s so little happening in the instrumentation, there’s tons and tons of space and you start to realize that with this space and their beats, they have an easy mesmeric quality.
Fantasy goes somewhere else altogether, a synth pad sets up the mood as Sim sings like he’s in a secret cave, unseen in the shadows. Halfway through sub-bass synths and analog sounds with effects make for a bizarre and left of centre experimental track.
Shelter is a cross between EBTG and Daughter sung by Madley-Croft but with that English, slightly soul, vocal delivery and melody. But the simple reverb guitar is what makes it different, it’s an exercise in restraint – anyone else would fill up these spaces, colour them in.
Basic Space might be them telling us their secret? An electronic experiment with vocals again shared by Sim and Madley-Croft. When the rhythm machine comes in, it’s captivating, makes you swing. The bass and guitar are there too making it their own, giving it their signature.
Infinity is like Wicked Game meets Orinoco Flow with a brash crashing sound, incongruous in the mix with the simple reverb guitar lines, but everything they do seems to work, even if it makes no sense – that’s the power of the ideas of youth.
Night Time is the most like Daughter melody wise (or the other way ’round) but with a mixture of New Order guitar lines (everywhere on this record) this time with repeat echo and a bass counter rhythm. It builds to a groove that eventually comes in the shape of a drum pattern after 2 minutes. Muted dance, is that a genre? It ends on a discordant note that nobody notices.
Stars follows all the same patterns that occur throughout, and with that the album is over.
So what is this music? Why is it so massively successful? It has the quality of quietly grabbing your attention, whispering at you and breaking through the noise. It’s uncomplicated lyrically, spacious sonically and blends real instruments with electronics in an easy union. Sounds easy, it’s not, unless you are them and for their young years, they are experts, old hands.