Barely out of school, south west Londoners The xx dress mainly in black and flit between sullen and bored seemingly at half hour intervals. Live, their moves range from the facing forward standoff to the subtler turning to one side and looking coy. Miraculously, it doesn’t comes across as studied or a vain attempt at cool, but rather a genuine rabbit-in-the-headlights awkwardness at being feted via blogs and music magazines for an album they recorded in the basement of their tiny record label offices.
The xx, influenced by the lack of rules in modern-day R&B, make music that absorbs elements from different genres – a pinch of The Cure‘s skeletal guitar riffs here, a dash of CocoRosie‘s ethereal mood music there – and somehow meshes them together to make a separate whole. One of their early releases was a cover of Aaliyah‘s Hot Like Fire, the band taking the original and stripping it down to its musical skeleton, just a spooky guitar motif and singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim‘s hushed vocals. Long-time friends, it’s their immediate chemistry on record that sets the band apart, their voices tenderly playing off of one another.
From the first notes, xx has the feel of something special. The self-explanatory Intro sets the stall out with producer/drum programmer Jamie Smith fashioning a Timbaland-esque beat that creeps in unannounced below an off-kilter riff. It’s Smith who will rightly take a lot of credit for the way xx sounds, from the harp-like noises he creates on the majestic Heart Skipped A Beat to the playful hand-clap drum sound that embellishes the melody on album highlight, Islands. Future single Basic Space is a deliciously strange beast, as if Smith had built up an elaborate wall of beat programming only to remove all the flesh and leave the bare bones. The almost jaunty production makes it sound like the Muppets covering Portishead.
After the relatively pulsating Basic Space the album begins its steady comedown, the beautiful Infinity drifting out of the speakers like smoke, Croft and Sim exchanging verses like two star-crossed lovers hiding behind their fringes. As Sim implores “give it up” the tension builds then drops creating a drip-feed of emotion that’s quite breathtaking. The closing Stars ends the album on a suitably atmospheric note, cementing xx as the perfect 3am record.
xx is an album that sounds wondrously fatigued, as if its creators could barely muster the energy to complete it. At the same time it sounds like something pored over during some very late night recording sessions and, in some way, this sense of the nocturnal has seeped into the fabric of the songs. Recent single Crystalised has an almost menacing feel to it, the musical equivalent of walking round the streets of London alone in the early hours. For a debut album it’s brilliantly realised and contains not an inch of flab across its 11 songs. Debut album of the year? It’s beyond doubt.