The xx’s rise from the shadows into the independent spotlight is impressive. Sonically, they’re low-key, especially for a quartet of twenty-year olds. That’s not to say their sound is totally absent from modern independent music — shadowy “night time” bands like The National, Interpol, Grizzly Bear and even Radiohead circa In Rainbows are all in the vicinity, and Portishead’s success is proof The xx’s fleeting hip-hop tendencies are currently in vogue. But there isn’t much about the band to latch onto, no image, no overarching homage, other than the music itself. The album precedes the band’s aesthetic reputation, which is a breath of fresh air to a music-interested community oversaturated by hype. It also makes the reviewers job — listen and react — a whole lot simpler.
xx opens with the airy hip-hop instrumental “Introduction,” heavy on texture and sheer spaciousness. Xylophone pings usher in “VCR,” the first proper song. It’s a hushed, shuffling ballad. The xx reject the popular open-with-a-bang ethos, opting instead to open with a murmur. And it works. Romy Madley Croft’s sincere, untrained, silky tone seduces the listener into the song’s soft romance — “You watch things on VCRs/With me and talk about big/Love” – and once she’s joined by male counterpart Oliver Sim, this slow-simmering, swirling auditory world has enraptured us.
The album continues in the same auditory vein, occasionally slipping into the darker, more sensual side of romance. The sound is decidedly minimalist for a pop album: Madley Croft’s and Sim’s soft, unadorned voices are joined by rolling bass and spare guitar, backed by drum machine rhythms. Aside from the occasional flourish and hum of a keyboard, there’s nothing layered on top. The result? One of the year’s least busy records. This band of four comes across as sparer than most solo acts. These guys know the art of reservation, tempering the artist’s urge to overindulge. It’s incredibly refreshing.
The reasons xx occasionally falls short are, interestingly, polar opposites — the lack of change and the abandonment of the formula. Though each song sounds different, many of the better ones (“Crystalised,” “Islands,” “Basic Space”) come across as different tries at the same basic structure. Each is successful, and each taken on its own is fantastic. But when they’re strung one after the other, weariness begins to hold them back. A few songs deftly evade this category, “Infinity” stands alone for its echoing strums and rhythmic snaps and crashes; “Shelter” soars for the interplay of vocals and guitar and the floating feeling granted by the lack of drums, but the exceptions can’t save the album from the peculiar sense of “Haven’t I heard this one already?” On the opposite end of the spectrum, xx falters when it steps outside its own sonic box: “Fantasy” feels like a half-written demo surrounded by throwaway blips of noise, while closer “Stars” is a good song held back by unemotional, off-putting instrumentation.
xx’s key trait is subtlety. It slips by as unobtrusively as fluttering eyelids. It’s an album for fleeting moments: drifting into sleep, driving alone at midnight, a prolonged goodnight kiss. Like a dream, when heard at the edges of consciousness, it’s bliss — but when you listen too hard, the magic begins to fade. Take any of the great singles for a mix tape. But for the album in its entirety, try a time when you can sink into it and drift away.