Xylos may be an unassuming synth-pop album, but it's also full of surprises.
The vast majority of Xylos' self-titled debut album is so unassuming that it can't help but surprise the listener on those occasions when it breaks out of its shell. It's a shell built out of pleasantries -- pleasant music, pleasant vocals, pleasant lyrics -- and it makes Xylos an incredibly easy album to listen to, whether actively or in the background. It's light indie rock in its approach, complete with the traditional five-piece setup and vocals that sound like Zooey Deschanel if Zooey Deschanel didn't sound so damn condescending all the time. These are quietly-performed pop songs, all of them in the three-to-five minute range, all of them immediately appealing and exquisitely performed.
None of this would be extraordinary, though, if they didn't break that shell every so often. This style of music lends itself to stories that are so detached that they risk avoiding the heart altogether in their quest to appeal for the head. When you hear a song like "Darling Dearest", the very language of the title feels like upper-class affection. It's the sort of pet name reserved for those drinking open-leaf tea in five-bedroom homes, a guarded, almost calculated offering of affection. After two minutes of pleasant dance beats and restrained vocals that do nothing to offset this initial impression, vocalist Monika Heidemann sings "And I've been sitting naked outside your house / Waving with a magic wand in hand / Sitting delicately, then you kiss my feet", suddenly thrusting an intimacy into the picture amongst the almost Victorian ideal of love that the rest of the song follows. It's a shocking left turn, and it lends a weight that the song lacks otherwise. It's passion simmering underneath decorum, and it's beautiful.
There are moments like this all over Xylos: moments that reward the listener willing to devote a little bit of attention to it without making themselves so obvious as to distract the background-listener from whatever's happening in the foreground.
"Not Enough" shimmys along like any other one of these songs, all sunny keyboards and layered harmonies, until just before the chorus hits one minute in. At this point, a male voice (presumably that of bassist Jordan Brooks, credited with vocals but heretofore unheard) shows up with a quickly-delivered couple of lines, until he and Heidemann team up and assemble some gorgeous chorus harmonies. "Too Late" feature more overt nods to late '80s-early '90s pop than any other song here, with a delightfully cheesy bendy synth motif that worms its way into ears repeatedly over its runtime, but the song only really gets to soar at the end, when that same synth noise gets to vamp a little bit over the quick pop beat. "Mission" scoots along unassumingly until two minutes in it unexpectedly turns into a Guns 'n Roses ballad for ten seconds -- until that transforms into a relaxed meditation in 6/8 time that features lyrics like "You know it's over when it feels like you're kicking a puppy down a hill". It's a strange song that never quite grounds itself, but honestly, that's where its charm lies.
"Mission" in particular is a demonstration of just how ambitious Xylos could be if they tried; their modus operandi of staying within the realm of relatively benign beats and lightweight, pleasant melodies is a conscious choice. They could write symphonies. They could stump us with layers upon layer of artistic good intentions à la Fiery Furnaces, but they don't. They prefer to make music that people can enjoy, rather than music to be analyzed. What's impressive is that Xylos holds up on both levels, a success of the heart and the head. It is lovingly constructed and beautifully performed.
And every once in a while, when you least expect it, it surprises you. That those surprises never sound out of place or detract from the norm is a feat in itself.