Not since early Low has a band been this purposefully quiet. Not since Young Marble Giants has a band made music this mechanically sparse. And hardly ever has an indie-pop band taken significant stylistic cues from the futuristic zoom-bip of Swizz Beatz and Timbaland and the militaristic synth production of the Neptunes.
Declarations like those above are pretty standard fare when it comes to the xx, and their exceptional debut album, XX, but they’re an increasingly rare case of a band who deserves all the hype. In under a year, the band of four London 20-year-olds went from bedroom pop experimenters to the pages of the NME and beyond, thanks not to their haircuts or grandiose statements made to whoever sticks a mic in their face but to the strength of their music. Which, coupled with their totally distinct sonic makeup, sets them apart — and above — from about every group of young Brits hitting the airwaves in 2009.
The xx cut their teeth covering the likes of Aaliyah live, who, as it turns out, is a much better comparison point than La Roux and the other bands the xx are being lumped in with by NME. XX might bring to mind indie touchstones, but at its core, the album is all modern R&B. The howling synth washes and dancy chorus of “Crystalised” are ripe for a remix, as plopping in verses from the hot R&B songstress this month would make total sense. “Heart Skipped a Beat” is a Timbaland beat stripped to its core of sparse synthetic hand claps and melodic guitar notes. And what else is “Shelter,” a song about finding shelter in a lover, but a re-write of any number of soul hits?
Lyrically, you can be certain that every song is about a relationship in progress, a relationship that is over, or a relationship that one party wants desperately to start up again. Guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim are the vocalists here, often trading verse for verse like they’re a couple (they claim to be just best friends) working out their problems on wax. They admonish each other for pushing the other away on “Crystalised,” find what they’re looking for on “Islands,” contemplate a break-up on “Basic Space,” and long for one another, desperately trying to connect but never quite doing so on “Heart Skipped a Beat.” But those are a warm-up for the album’s longest track, the five-minute “Infinity,” a hazy, indicting track about the emotional entanglement that often comes with sexual relationships. For a pair of 20-year-olds, Croft and Sim have something of a virtuosic ability to write cutting songs about love and its messiness, deftly outdoing bands with more mileage.
If you’re not sold by the lyrics or the masterful distillation of R&B and indie-pop influences, it’s the little moments that takeover on XX. There’s the way the lightning bolt synths play like a whiplash to the cerebellum on “Infinity.” The way the bass grumbles retorts to the verses on “Islands.” How the emptiness on “Basic Space” is as important as the parts that make a noise. How Croft struggles to say everything she has to say on “Night Time,” and how she and Sim finish each other’s sentences on “Stars.” Throughout its 11 tracks, XX doesn’t so much as demand your devotion as it just slowly and completely takes it. The xx recorded not only the year’s best debut but also one of its best albums, period.