Music

The xx: Coexist

Photo: Jamie-James Medina

Coexist may be the kind of album that fully reveals itself over time, but, for now, one of the year's most anticipated releases only keeps you waiting for something more to happen.


The xx

Coexist

Label: Young Turks/XL
US Release Date: 2012-09-11
UK Release Date: 2012-09-10
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Painting minimalist soundscapes in shades that range from muted darkness to pitch-black atmospherics, the xx has never had the most supplies in its art box or the broadest palette. But what made the xx’s 2009 self-titled debut stand out was the nuance and care with which the band used its basic tools, as it maintained an impressively consistent aesthetic while throwing in enough variations on its main theme to keep things vital. Whether the first outing was spare by design or by necessity for the newbie act, the album showed that the xx was masterful at making the most out of not-a-lot, nimbly tweaking tempos and drawing out subtle contrasts in tone to create dramas of hardly seen visions and barely heard sounds. Shaped by a combination of precocious skill and instinct, xx worked as a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

The same, however, can’t quite be said for the xx’s follow-up, Coexist: Whereas the first album brought more out of each and every song thanks to deft sequencing and a fine-tuned sense of pacing, the trio is so intent and focused on the nuances of Coexist that it seems to have overlooked how all the pieces fit together in the bigger picture. So the xx may have developed and honed its meticulous craft by sweating the details here, but it comes at the expense of the vibrant, intuitive feel of its earlier triumph, as most of the offerings on Coexist blur together with the same downbeat production, the same deliberate electro-pop orchestration, the same slo-mo tempo, the same languorous soul-searching in the vocals. In the process of trying to perfect every sound, from the grain of Romy Madley Croft’s and Oliver Sim’s smoldering girl-boy vocals to the slight rattle of guitar chords to the almost imperceptible hum from vibrating bass strings, the xx almost refines its music out of existence.

There’s a monochromatic quality to Coexist that never quite lifts, as the album’s composition, production, even track lengths hardly ever vary, with the vocals up front and the instrumental parts and Jamie Smith’s electronic embellishments unobtrusively winding their way behind. While the opener “Angels” definitely puts Coexist on the right track as one of the album’s stronger, more appealing pieces, it nonetheless feels like it would be better served as an intro that starts to bring the energy up from a simmer than as a tone-setter that locks in a measured pace and whispered cadences that hardly shift from beginning to end. It says something about “Angels” that Madley Croft’s hushed vocals are often its most prominent element: Sparse sound effects, like a tiny thump of drum or a wispy guitar pattern, never take on roles as big as they could or should, mostly lurking in the background to complement the low-intensity lovesickness of the vocals, even dropping out of the picture as Madley Croft all but goes a capella at points.

While the after-hours vibe can evoke immediacy and intimacy, it’s often missing a spark, which makes the xx’s music feel colder and more abstract than it should be, especially when compared to how the first record used canny textural contrasts and changes in mood to strike an emotional connection. Rather than launch into something that ignites more of a visceral reaction, “Angels” only fades into the downcast “Chained”, which may be even more restrained, its soulful duet complemented by fragile accompaniments like a gossamer guitar thread that climbs tantalizingly only to disappear as quickly as it materialized. And while the drum-machine pings on “Fiction” bear enough of a resemblance to those from Yo La Tengo’s indie-electro single “Saturday”, it’s what’s missing from the former when you match it up to the latter that you notice the most, namely a warm radiance that can shine through and illuminate the hazy atmospherics.

These moments are but a few of many fits-and-starts that tempt you into thinking that Coexist is just about the turn the corner and pick up steam, only to pull back and continue on in its own measured way. Whatever hints the xx gives that it might break out of its daze on Coexist end up being fleeting, whether it’s how the melodic echo of steel drums fades out just as it begins to get your attention on “Reunion” or how an intriguing guitar pattern on “Unfold” is a tad too slow, too quiet, and too short to really, well, unfold. On “Try”, a little slithery synth line and bubbling guitar effects are as close as anything to chills and thrills you’ll find on Coexist, as Sim almost seems like he’s testing and teasing the listener’s patience when he coos, “We bide our time.” Nothing could better describe the subdued effort of Coexist, except that it doesn’t become quite clear when that time might come and whether the wait for it is too long for the payoff you’re hoping for.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though, that Coexist is an exercise in delayed gratification, if you’re paying attention to what the passive-aggressive love songs are about thematically. As much as anything else in the mix, the damaged lyrics and hushed singing only amplify the monotony of Coexist and drag things out all the more. As Coexist takes its time to unwind its romantic scenarios, they incrementally lose their sense of drama as the semi-requited desire Madley Croft and Sim sing about so self-consciously becomes redundant and almost oppressive. Sure, “Reunion” might get to the heart of how paralyzing slow-burning infatuation can be, as Madley Croft and Sim shyly duet, “Did I / See you / See me / In a new light?,” before deciding that reuniting is “Never / Not ever again” a possibility. But the hemming-and-hawing inaction gets old when the next track, the Interpol-lite “Sunset”, replays the scene, ending with Madley Croft resigned that, “Now it feels like you see through me.” That very same sentiment feels like a lead balloon by the time you get to “Missing”, which weighs down Coexist smack dab in the middle of it, as Sim concludes, “Now there’s no hope for you and me.”

Still, that’s not say that Coexist doesn’t offer enough to admire in its low-profile pleasures, once you appreciate what you’re getting out of the album -- and what you’re not. While little on Coexist makes the instant impact that xx’s most compelling songs do, the best selections here possess a subliminal quality that insinuates itself subconsciously given time. In effect, you come to realize that tracks like “Angels” and “Sunset” have their own sense of development and come to their own resolution, after you recognize that’s something you won’t find on Coexist as a whole. “Tides” recovers a bit of that magic from the xx’s early singles thanks to its psychodrama keyboards, even if they’re modulated at what seems like half the volume and half the speed. Best of all is the penultimate number “Swept Away”, which gets some momentum going to close the album, with brisk disco beats and insistent guitar harmonics. It’s the best example of the xx pushing its formula ahead, more complex in the way it intertwines rhythm and melody to show what its new, more mature approach can achieve.

You might suspect that Coexist is the kind of album that makes a stronger connection over time, as the xx’s slow-played virtuosity reveals more and more, if you have the chance to be as patient with it as the music is. For now, though, it’s hard not to feel that one of the year’s most anticipated releases only keeps you waiting and waiting for something more to happen.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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