It's not that the songs from the xx's iTunes live session aren't top-notch, it's that they're redundant renditions of the album originals.
For anyone who has experienced the xx in concert recently, the iTunes Live from Soho EP is a bit of a disappointment, lacking in the energy and strong presence that these fast-rising up-and-comers have learned to muster on stage. While the well-executed tracks on the EP speak volumes for the group's chops in the way they can flawlessly recreate their fragile debut so proficiently live, the iTunes exclusive is mostly a redundant companion to the album.
Indeed, one of the most unexpected revelations of a band that continues to surprise is just how muscular and vital it sounds live, despite the mopey, art-damaged ethos and the quiet, intimate sound of its recorded work. What makes the xx's developing live act all the more unlikely is that it underwent its transformation as the result of an abrupt personnel shakeup, when guitarist/keyboardist Baria Qureshi left at the height of the hype, after a whirlwind CMJ publicity blitz last November. What did the xx do amidst the uncertainty and drastic change while preparing for its first extensive U.S. tour? Remaining members Romy Madley-Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith reinvented the band on the fly as a power trio by necessity, rigging a bold and loud stage show that gave new life to their dark, simmering songs rather than reproducing the precise, painstaking aesthetic of the album.
While the live EP achieves no mean task in faithfully reconstructing the studio experience of the xx's breakthrough album, the iTunes offering is missing the improvisational prowess you never would have known the band had. (To be fair, the performance at the SoHo Apple Store occurred when the xx was on the cusp of the lineup change in Fall 2009.) Part of the problem is the "unplugged"-like atmosphere, which is probably not conducive to the heavy, earth-shaking bass and blaring guitars of the threesome's concert hall shows. A bigger issue is the choice of the album's quieter tracks for the EP's tracklist, which might fit the venue but also dulls the listening experience. Mood-setting pieces like "Intro" and "Shelter" are nice enough tracks in the context of the album when they're alongside poppier singles like "VCR" and "Crystalised", but they don't really stand up on their own and can't carry the five-track EP. Even though "Islands" and "Shelter" are among the band's catchier and most appealing numbers, there's not enough novelty to their live renderings to recommend them. In the end, the EP's average grade isn't for lack of effort, but for playing it safe.
For anyone who is more than a completist, the one track that's worth a download is the live take on "Night Time", which slowly and steadily builds up to a denser electronic soundscape that nicely bulks up the fragile composition. As it gently and gradually sheds its rote rendition of the album version with a quickened pace and dancier vibe, "Night Time" hints at what the xx might be capable of in the very near future, if the trio continues to add on to the sound it has already mastered instead of trying to recapture the magic. It's on those terms that the EP might best be judged, as a peek into things to come from a band that has already achieved so much, but also recognizes it has room to grow.