Counterbalance: The xx – ‘xx’

Watch things on VCRs with me and talk about big love. I think we're superstars -- or at least the xx are. A 2009 indie pop masterpiece is the focus of this week's Counterbalance.
The xx
Young Turks

Mendelsohn: I have gone on record that I don’t particularly like ‘achingly beautiful’ records. In the long decades since we began Counterbalance there are two that probably qualify for the ‘achingly beautiful’ category: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Jeff Buckley’s Grace. I’m sure I am missing a couple. There is probably a Nick Drake record I should include and an AC/DC album or two — although they contribute to a different kind of ache. I would like to add an another record to ‘achingly beautiful’ list (not the head-aching list). Please turn your attention to the xx’s self-titled debut.

I’m sure you’ve heard a little bit of their music, Klinger. Most of this album was sold off or used in commercials. This would have bothered me at one time as a cop out but these days I don’t watch TV and my qualms about selling out have greatly diminished in correlation of my increasing age. Go figure. xx is a quiet yet driven album, full of space that lets the arrangements breathe, delivering a record full of pop wizardry that is gorgeous, teaming with lyrical material that never quite connects as the leads of Romy Croft and Oliver Sim sing past each other on the topics that normally drive the greatest records: life, love and loss. But it isn’t the lyrics the steal the show, but rather the quiet force and chemistry of Croft and Sim, who lay down the guitar and bass over the electronic beats provide by Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx) and the keyboard of Baria Qureshi, who was ousted from the group shortly after the release of this record.

I like this record because of the power it finds hiding in the spaces between the notes. There aren’t too many artists who are confident enough in their abilities to not fill every available space with sound in order to mask some undefined vulnerability.

Klinger: Well, I’m glad you brought up the fact that the xx’s music was featured so prominently on the TV. As part of my job, I am occasionally tasked with sourcing stock music to include in video productions — tracks with names like “Corporate Sunshine” and “Happy Verticals” and so forth. So as soon as the first chiming guitars of “Intro” started up, I was waiting for that watermark robot voice to utter “iStock Audio, iStock Audio” every few seconds. Turns out they aren’t trying to make pleasantly ambient music that would sound good in a B2B sales team presentation — it’s more that stock audio composers are trying to make music that sounds like the xx, but stuff that those cheapos in the marketing department don’t have to pay a lot for. I had a whole carts and eggs and chickens and horses thing going on here. I get it now.

Meanwhile, I’m not necessarily sold here. Yes, there’s a lot to like about the production and the group’s use of space. Romy Madley Croft’s incandescent guitar is especially noteworthy. There’s quite a bit of beauty here, but for it to be aching I think I need a little bit more emotional connection. I think with the xx I’m more drawn to the sound than I am the songs. I can’t escape the feeling that underneath all the aching and the glowing and whatnot, my engagement with the album seems completely dependent upon how enchanted I am with the bloopity bits and the various spaces between the notes that tickle my inner ear. As much as I might get hooked by “VCR” or “Islands”, there’s still a “Fantasy” in the mix there that takes me out of the moment. I’m close though, Mendelsohn. Keep talking.

Mendelsohn: I’m glad you mentioned Croft’s guitar work. There is something so evocative about what little she gives you. Then, on “Infinity” the soft strumming is a dead ringer for Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”. And god damn, I love that song. Look, if you want to talk about ‘aching’ and ‘beauty’, I would also like to point out that I love the accompanying music video nearly as much as I love that song. And iiiiiiiiiiiiiii, want to apologize for this tangental digression. Seriously though, I know this piece is about the xx but if the editors don’t drop a link to “Wicked Game”, right here, I will be severely disappointed. Drop a link for “Infinity”, too. For science, or whatever.

Klinger: OK, now that I’m relistening to “Infinity” with “Wicked Game” in my head, it’s pretty clear that those are basically the same chords. No big deal, these things happen, no aspersions cast. But then when the next song, “Night Time”, starts and it sounds a lot like “Wicked Game” too, I start to remember why I wasn’t sold on this record so much. I’m expecting that with a little more exposure I’d find myself fully on-board, but it’s taking me a little time here.

Mendelsohn: I didn’t think the xx’s record would drop its hooks into you right away. It has too much of a mechanical back bone. For all my rambling about this record being ‘achingly beautiful,’ it can come off as slightly sterile. There is a lot of synth and the electronic beat can stand in stiff juxtaposition to the intimate lyrical material as Croft and Sim trade lines. Although I guess I should note that both Croft and Sim are gay and none of the lyrics have anything to do with the other. In fact, they are mostly obtuse and both singers spend most of the songs singing past each other. But those are the things that I find so compelling about this record. I like that dichotomy. I like the humanizing effect of whispered lyrics against a robotic background of fabricated drum beats and baselines that remain in lock step even if those lyrics only hint at love without really delving into loss. That’s the beauty of this record. Sims, Croft, Qureshi and Smith carve out a sparse sound from the constant noise of the modern world while making the sounds of the modern world convey the music they want to make. And the music they want to make is exquisite pop music — spare, stark and quiet — but pop music none-the-less.

Klinger: I don’t really have a problem with the mechanical nature of the xx. I hear echoes of everything from the Cars to Kraftwerk in these songs, and I’ll defend both of those groups with my last breath. (Actually I’d like to think I’d have something more profound to say on my deathbed than “Trust me. Go listen to Autobahn,” but this is me we’re talking about.) And yes, xx is, at its core, a charming pop record. And while I’m thinking about it, I’m not really sure where all this stuff about Croft and Sim not singing love duets to one another is all that relevant. I’ve seen that come up quite a bit in my browsing around, but does it matter? They’re not romantic partners any more than Lennon and McCartney were, but we seem to be asking these the xx to explain themselves to us in a way other creative partners never do.

Mendelsohn: I think, under the cultural circumstances, most people want to jump to the conclusion that there is some sort of greater relationship between Croft and Sims simply because it lends emotional weight to the songs. And then you have to mention the sexual orientation of both leads simply to re-enforce the fact that, no, they aren’t involved and the press cycle rolls on. This little tidbit is a requisite whenever writing about the xx. Seriously, find me an article about the xx that doesn’t include that little factoid. I’m loathe to bring it up but outside perception, apart from the music, plays a big part in the way we perceive the piece of art.

Klinger: So never discount the meaning of a creative partnership, which is as complicated and rewarding and sometimes as frustrating and sometimes as joyous as a romance, even if it’s nothing like a romance at all. The building of something together generates something that feels very personal during its creation; in fact, the act of creating something in partnership can often feel a lot like live. At its best, though, it becomes universal, and people make it their own. Once it reaches its intended audience, the fruit of the creative partnership becomes a separate being, where we assign our own meanings to what we’re hearing or seeing.

Mendelsohn: Very true. Croft and Sims have a unique relationship that, along with Smith and Qureshi, has resulted in an indelible record that traces the pop sphere, incorporating everything from ambient soundscapes, snatches of electronica, soft folk and even a lot of ’80s and ’90s R&B. The groups’ early take on the Womack & Womack song “Teardrops” is an early indicator of how they eventually reached the sounds of xx. In the intervening years, the xx have continued to release quiet and achingly beautiful records. Here’s hoping the creative relationship can persist.