The question, “Are they a good live band?” has only been legitimate for the past 50 years or so. Before recording technology was sophisticated and ubiquitous enough to separate the artist from the album, bands were live by definition. Now, a series of EPs recorded at the iTunes music festival in London—tickets to which were free and given away by lottery—and available exclusively through the iTunes store raise the same question in a uniquely 21st century way. These concerts were pointed not simply toward the audience of the moment, but toward the downloaders of the future. The relevant question seems to be more like, “Are they a good recorded live band?”
For the young xx, composed of high school friends Oliver Sim, Romy Croft, and Jamie Smith, the answer is mixed. Fans of the band will find the mood and sound of the EP appealing, but the truth is that the crooners’ moody minimalism doesn’t seem to translate well to a live venue. The music is low-key as it is, and the faint echo from the club and the random, muffled interjections of the crowd only intensify the impression that there is nothing much happening on stage. The vocals sound somehow strained and at moments unsteady. Sim in particular is prone to losing the thread, though Croft has some shining moments.
The rhythm of the EP is such that whatever momentum the group carried through their show is lost. The background noises from the crowd fade out at the end of most tracks, cutting the energy of each performance abruptly short as the listener is jolted helplessly forward. The EP’s brevity, too, is enough to remind one that there was more to their performance. A diluted product is bound to feel slapdash and abbreviated, and on the whole the tracks are not strong enough to stand on their own. While the purpose of a live recording is more flexible than a mere simulation of the concert-going experience, the sense that the continuity of the music and the atmosphere of the crowd have been ruined is frustrating.
Listening to the xx’s performance, however unsatisfying, does reveal a different side of the group’s aesthetic. The contrast between the growling bass pulses and the chirping guitar lines is especially striking, and the honest, unproduced quality of the sound makes earnest moments like the first churning verse of “Shelter” more immediate and visceral. The band also play around a little with their repetoire, doing an original if comparatively bland cover of Kyla’s hit “Do You Mind?” and tacking a thunderous drum segment onto the introductory track from their album.
The crowd makes itself felt on several tracks, singing along on “Crystalized” and clapping to parts of “Shelter”. Their enthusiasm is obvious, and it’s funny to hear the xx, who make such shy and reclusive music, playing for an excited and expressive audience. For anyone who can already imagine themselves as part of that crowd, ready and waiting to hear the first warbling notes of “Crystalized”, the iTunes Festival: London 2010 EP is worth a listen. For everybody else, the recorded (and not live) version will probably do just as well.