Album Review: The xx – xx

[Young Turks; 2009]

Popping in British indie act The xx’s debut, “Intro” slides into play, calmingly initiating the listener into their small musical world. Without vocals – aside from what is more or less sighing – the nearly trip-hop track is a perfect opening to the greatness that is this album. “Intro” gives way to the first true song, “VCR.” What’s immediately apparent is that despite their fledgling status, this band is completely at ease with themselves, and completely certain of what they wish to achieve.

Really, the best way to describe it might be to declare that the whole affair is a little bit quiet. Yet, to the patient ear, it’s never boring. The xx aren’t concerned with making a racket; they more or less expect the listener to be where they’re already at or to be left behind. The band isn’t playing catch-up against a nonexistent reputation; they expect the record to speak for itself. And it certainly does.

Every song is catchy and immediately enjoyable while not noisy. Whether it was the case or not, one can almost picture the band members unconcerned and relaxing before lazily recording the disc. As everyone has been saying since the record was released, the record is sexually based. The band’s name might make this seem like a given to some, but regardless, it’s not obnoxious. It’s almost funny that the record is getting labeled as a sex album. Don’t get me wrong – I’d agree. However, the vocalists don’t really talk about sex (ok, disregarding the miniscule “Fantasy”), they just sing about this and that, talking about a relationship to be sure, but it’s never too overtly sexual. Still, with tracks like “Heart Skipped a Beat” – which repeats the line “Sometimes I still need you” – there’s no doubting that it’s a record concerned with a boy and a girl. Good thing, too, as a lot of the album’s strength arises from the interplay between the band’s two singers – yup, a guy and a gal. The record basically fully comprises of the two going back and forth, peppering each other with meek lyrical flourishes, each sounding more concerned with what the other is going to say. It allows for some great soft tension.

Yet, through it all, it’s certain that the band is having a laid-back sort of fun. On “Islands,” the duo jitter at each other in their sing-song way over a soft beat, before the song gives way to a fun little drum breakdown in its final seconds.

Largely, this record is all about the atmosphere. There’s a lot of talk about sex without much actual talk about it, and the group’s co-vocalists make good with their relatively simplistic and soft vocals. The drums present soft backing entertainment rather than crashing noise; all the instrumentation is designed to set a perfect mood. It may be a record about sex, but I challenge a listener to not feel like they’re being taken places if they give the record their full attention. On the muted “Shelter,” the female vocalist timidly wonders “Can I make it better with the lights turned on?” over a textured beat that slowly drives forward, so the listener is absorbed and feels as if they’re going to whatever subtly sad and muted place the singer is living and thinking in. From there the album lifts up a bit for “Basic Space,” one of the record’s most instantly catchy records, the chorus being a simple, enjoyable back-and-forth.

Next is what may be the album’s most transporting track. “Infinity” follows its clicky instrumentation unsurely forward; the singers sound particularly unsure with each other as they come to realize that “they can’t give it up.” Alright, so maybe the record is rather sexual. Still, it’s at least ambiguous enough to allow the listener other thoughts. The song strives forward to the male telling his partner that she has to give it up, and her stating her inability. As they repeat this, the beat slowly builds to (for The xx, anyway) an intense conclusion. The album concludes with “Stars,” boasting lyrics that both wrap up the album’s relationship and could be said to represent the band’s impressive focus: “We can give it time.” The xx are in no hurry.

Thinking of this record, maybe it could be played as a club is finally closing, or at home afterwards. It’s all kind of sad, but not actually saddening to listen to. If anything, the album just leaves the listener at peace as it concludes. One may wonder about the relationship presented: is there any love in it, or is it all simply a sad, empty sexual encounter? As a single drum beat thumps on the last track, and the lovers muse, “If you want me, why go?” you’ll wonder. Essentially, this is an excellent album. Pick it up. Go see them on tour. I eagerly await where they choose to go next, having started off with such a presence. The xx seem unstoppable at this early juncture.