When the xx released their debut album in 2009, its icy minimalism was met with worldwide critical acclaim. Combining a range of styles (post-punk, dubstep, R&B, indie pop) and stripping each to its barest essentials, the xx sound was that of a band revitalizing stale genres from the inside out. While Oliver Sim and Romy, the group’s detached, navel-gazing vocalists, were singled out, it soon became clear that there was another, more engaging persona behind the group’s sound. Given the chance, the xx’s monochromatic world could be infused with a host of vibrant colors.
But with the xx quiet now for three years following 2012’s Coexist, Jamie xx in the meantime found himself an in-demand producer and remix artist. Having worked with the late Gil Scott-Heron between xx albums helped raise the profiles of both artists, earning Scott-Heron a brand new, younger audience while elevating Jamie xx’s status as a producer of forward-thinking electronic music. On his solo debut, he touches on his broad spectrum of influences and experiences making In Colour feel more like a triumphant victory lap than a coming out party.
A more sophisticated sonic architect than the xx’s icy minimalism would lead listeners to believe, Jamie xx’s full-length debut is a multi-hued collection of songs and tracks that carry traces of his production work for others enlivened by his own skillful eye for composition and genre melding. As the album’s title implies, In Colour eschews the xx’s monochromatic approach in favor of a broader spectrum of sound and color.
There are still elements of the xx’s melancholic wistfulness, however. But here they are tempered with a more humanistic quality; a depth of emotion and subtle nuance that makes these tracks more immediately welcoming. Both “See Saw” and “Loud Places” feature Romy on vocals, and provide a glimpse at what that group could sound like should they ever decide to forgo their minimalistic approach in favor of lusher, fuller arrangements. None of their trademark stark emotionality is lost in the transition, proving somewhat paradoxically that less is not necessarily always more. “Loud Places” especially benefits from a fuller arrangement, with Romy almost breaking her icy monotone on several occasions to revel in the celebratory feel going on around her. It’s a subtle show of solidarity and support for Jamie xx’s more overt dance sensibilities and influences, helping show this to be the necessary work of a singular, vital voice in contemporary music rather than a solo outing based on an overinflated ego.
Similarly, Sim checks in on “Stranger In A Room”. With its minor key synth arpeggiations and bare guitar lines, “Stranger In A Room” is the only track on In Colour that could pass for an xx track. It’s a fine reminder of what that group can sound like when operating at their minimalistic best. Coming as it does mid-way through the album, it’s a pleasant respite from the more densely structured arrangements, an acknowledgement of where he has been in the midst of showcasing where he is headed.
On “Hold Tight”, the repetition of disparate phrases become the central focus, building in direct contrast to one another and using volume and rhythm as the basis for each part then woven into a sort of electronic counterpoint. It’s an almost-classical approach to composition that shows Jamie xx to be more than simply an accomplished producer, but savvy composer as well, capable of complex ideas built around basic, repetitious phrases.
This idea plays out with subtle variations on “Sleep Sound”. Bending and stretching a Four Freshman sample, the phrase is rendered unrecognizable; a scrambled transmission fading in and out, carrying hints of the familiar before again disappearing. Only at the end is the sample finally allowed to coalesce and resolve its fractured self into the original sound of its source material. It’s an interesting move that is then played out in reverse on “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).” Built around a sample of the Persuasions’ “Good Times,” the song itself lifts the phrase wholesale for the intro before cutting and splicing within Young Thug and Popcann’s guest verses (including the somewhat ridiculous line “I’m gonna ride in that pussy like a stroller”). Despite the recent controversy surrounding the legality of Jamie xx’s use the sample itself, it shows him to be competent in crafting traditionally structured pop songs. Loaded with hooks, it’s a natural extension of his more tracks-based approach and could serve as the necessary entry point for a broader audience.
On the whole, In Color is a vibrant, warm distillation of Jamie xx’s genre-spanning influences, one which could easily result in a meteoric rise in his profile. Given the strength of his work as both a producer and member of the xx up to this point, it would be a well-deserved promotion and recognition for an exceptional job well done.