Thursday, December 10, 2009

Album Of The Week: The xx- XX

I wonder, has there ever been a study that determines whether people tend to prefer singers from their own gender? I ask because I've been listening to a lot of PJ Harvey and The Velvet Underground this week, and it's got me thinking about this very subject. For a time I despised Nico's songs on the first Velvets album, but now I love her voice and welcome the change from Lou Reed. Meanwhile, for some reason I have to consciously think "I want to listen to a female voice today" to get around to PJ Harvey, Sleater-Kinney, etc. I don't know why I divide music along gender lines, and I probably shouldn't. The point is, bands who have both female and male singers present something of a solution to my problem, since I don't think of The xx as either a "male" or "female" band, just as I don't think of the first Velvets album as "belonging" to Reed or Nico.

I have to assume that The xx is wrapped up in gender politics and interaction between the sexes, since so many of their songs on XX are about love, whether it be having it, losing it, or wanting it. I'd like to think their name is a reference to the XX and XY chromosomes, but it's likelier that they couldn't think of a good one and chose 'xx' to denote a blank space. This same reserve and borderline apathy is abundant in their slow, mellow music. There's a "late night, in the night club/upscale bar, romantic tension" atmosphere to their music that's borrowed from the first Interpol album and Junior Boy's So This Is Goodbye, but The xx never reach the emotional peaks of either band, only really lifting Interpol's guitar tone and reverb-heavy effects. No, their music is more detached and minimalist, as if a post-punk band dropped all punk influences and brought in some R&B, in particular a focus on vocals. Furthermore, if you added a beat and a couple jazzy samples to 'Shelter', you'd be at least halfway to Portishead, or any number of other trip hop/downtempo electronic groups.

The xx's music may remind one of post-punk, trip hop, and R&B, but after a couple listens to this album, an astonishing sense of originality arises. Don't misunderstand me; they're not one of those left-field bands who sound like nothing you've ever heard before. But no one, that I've heard of, anyway, has put the pieces together quite like this. It's even more astonishing that the band are in their early 20s, because the self assured performances, pristine arrangements, and IV-drip melodies are the kind of thing most groups have to work their way toward. Though not as affecting (at least to this heart) as, say, Low's Mimi and Alan, the female/male co-vocals on tracks like 'Heart Skipped A Beat' are truly amongst XX's best moments. Despite the withdrawn, minimalist music, there's a real sincerity to the singing on this album even if, on the surface, it sounds monotone and indifferent. It's like how admitting to someone that you love them can only be done with a neutral voice, otherwise you'll sound too desperate or too insincere. Or you're expecting to get your heart broken when the other person doesn't respond in kind, so you play it off as irony.

While XX is one of the best albums of 2009, it's hard to imagine that whatever they come out with next will have quite the same impact or refreshing sense of originality. Not that their sophomore effort is fated to be bad; they could comfortably make a career of perfecting or slightly altering the little corner of the world they've carved out with their debut. But The xx seem like one of those "lightning strikes once" phenomena, where a band's first release is so distinctive and self assured that there isn't much room for things like maturity or change without completely altering the formula of what makes them so good. But, hey, whatever. XX is great, and that's all you need to know.

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