Music

The xx: I See You

Building off Jamie xx's In Colour, the xx have at last escaped from their own self-imposed limitations.


the xx

I See You

Label: Young Turks
US Release Date: 2017-01-13
UK Release Date: 2017-01-13
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Not counting the years of teasing and anticipation leading up to this moment, the last we heard from the xx was their 2012 sophomore album Coexist, a time that left their fate in a somewhat uncertain place. It was a gorgeous album to be sure, and featured some of the band's strongest individual pieces to date, boiling down the acute sensitivity of their debut into a quivering, shattered beauty. Yet, in the process, they very nearly sucked the air out entirely from the project. Coexist could be almost unbearable when listened to in its entirety, suffocating the listener with its relentless, hesitant spaces and wounded guitar lines, already an easily recognizable trademark of the band. "Did I hold it too tight? / Did I not let enough light in?" Romy Croft sang on the stunning "Chained", in what may have inadvertently doubled as an astute relational reflection and an assessment of the band's current quandary. Coexist was a successful album, but the question remained in its wake of how long this approach could continue working for the band, the nagging suspicion being not much longer at all.

More than four years and one Jamie xx solo album later, the xx have at last escaped from their self-imposed limitations. I See You finds the band sounding more like a proper trio than ever before, as though Jamie's In Colour made them suddenly realize what an asset he is to broadening not only their sound but also their emotional palette. Whereas Coexist felt constricted at times, I See You is anything but. The album refracts each song through unexpected musical lenses and applies a sample-heavy approach that reaches out in all directions, making for a refreshingly three-dimensional listen. Indeed, the spectral, reverb-laden guitar that once seemed such an indispensable part of the band's core sounds now persists mostly as an undercurrent, when it appears at all. The horns -- horns! -- that kick off the album on "Dangerous" are an immediate signal that this is to be a full-bodied, densely textured affair. Even more traditional Romy Croft ballad numbers like "Performance" and "Brave For You" are layered with thickly applied bass and, in the case of the latter, swell to sonic heights far beyond their initial foundation.

By far the band's most extroverted work to date, it would nonetheless be too simplistic to assume that I See You is, therefore, the xx's "happy" album. It is every bit as emotionally complex as previous releases, at times even more so. In their depiction of romantic pursuits, the band certainly evinces a swaggering confidence and boldness here that was rarely encountered on their first two albums, which tended to recede into the background and observe from the sidelines. "I Dare You" and "Dangerous" are irresistibly flirtatious, and "Lips" brims with a breathless, taken-aback sensuality. The xx have never been strangers to the emotional power, for good or ill, of physical touch, yet here they sound more in command of that physicality than ever before. Even when Croft sings, "Here come my insecurities / I almost expect you to leave" on "Say Something Loving", it comes across more as the self-knowledge that comes with maturity and adulthood rather than total submission to one's inner demons.

Inner demons crop up before very long in altogether devastating ways. On the densely pulsating "Replica", Oliver Sim documents his struggles with substance use that came along with sudden stardom, resulting in one of the most lyrically compelling pieces on the album. "Your mistakes were only chemical" is an immediately striking line that probes the question of personal responsibility when it comes to addiction. "25 and you're just like me / Is it in my nature to be stuck on repeat? / Another encore to an aftershow / Do I chase the night or does the night chase me?" he further sings, alluding to the speed and ease with which control can be lost before one even realizes it.

Self-destructive behaviors and their impact on loved ones are later revisited on album closer "Test Me". Like "Our Song", the final track on Coexist, "Test Me" is about the bandmates' relationship with one another, and both are statements of unconditional love. But whereas "Our Song" was an easy, near-saccharine incarnation of such love, "Test Me" is much, much more real than that. "You look, but you never see…Tell me this time you've changed", Croft and Sim sing over a tense, dark musical backdrop. "Test me, see if I stay / How could I walk the other way?" The vow to never abandon one another is still there, but the band has dispensed with any illusions that love is always easy, or that it always feels good. It is here that the title of I See You comes into focus: love, whether platonic or romantic, demands a witnessing of someone, for all their flaws and weaknesses; it depends on a willingness to honestly reflect that back to them, followed by a willingness to stay around regardless.

The brutal autobiographical honesty that Sim puts into it makes I See You in some ways his defining album with the band. In contrast with Coexist's more or less Sim-less "Angels", nowhere here is his contribution more invaluable than on lead single "On Hold", where he supplies a heartbreaking yet infectious lyrical and melodic hook. "Every time I let you leave / I always saw you coming back to me," he sings. "When and where did we go cold? / I thought I had you on hold". I have yet to be able to listen to the song without singing along with that part, and I can't imagine that I'm alone in that. Expertly employing an unconventional Hall & Oates sample, the song is a strange, euphoric, transcendent combination of regret and triumph. The band's wise choice to place the track toward the end of the album only further maximizes its emotional impact.

I See You is a much-needed and very successful recalibration of what defines the xx as a band. Without sacrificing any of the confessional, emotionally rich material that made us love them in the first place, the band has dispensed with self-consciousness and proven their ability to expand upon previously held identities, thus cementing their continuing preeminence in the indie music world.

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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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