In one room sits a huddled group of professionals, ranging from for-pay songwriters to conniving promoters. Their eyes are all on a whiteboard that lists several opportunities for their fledging client on this starry Friday night. Should he show up at a star’s birthday party, present at an awards show, or attend a charity dinner? It must be such a hassle to be forced to choose just one. Most of the independent groups featured here would probably laugh at such a scenario, either shocked or appalled at the fact that publicity is more important than the music itself these days. But can you really blame those who take advantage of it? When you have a travelling circus of songwriters, performers, and executives by your side throughout the touring and studio sessions, is there really anything else to do apart from flaunting a pretty face and throwing some vocals into an auto-tuner? Artists often struggle to resist the allure of automated production like this, with the major labels hot after a certain talent or superficial component that they can manipulate and promote to produce millions. You are guaranteed a house in Malibu and a new collection of sports cars, but your artistic integrity will be forever plagued, even if the PR firm expertly crafts the image that YOU are the songwriter and not some struggling professional with a knack for melody. Some artists hardly have a choice in the matter, but others are able to find the perfect divide between polished, accessible production and DIY ethics.
The XX playfully list their influences in regard to opposite spectrums, commercial success and cult success. It is not so much dependent on style, but instead how similar approaches can end up differing dramatically based on the pressures of derivative automation. They like everything from Aaliyah to CocoRosie, Rihanna to The Cure, and Missy Elliott to Chromatics. Some sharp contrasts, sure, but their message is clear in describing their influences this way. This London-based quartet is the antithesis of independent elitism, showing both their adoration for mainstream pop music and independent stylistic mash-ups with a sound that contains the commercially receptive allure of acts like Rihanna and Aaliyah but without the repetitive, industrialized facades that tarnish their images. Perhaps this applies not so much in teen America or MTV’s headquarters, but more in regard to readers of this site. You obviously come here to discover bands that have little to no recognition as of its publishing date, and to produce something that I and others deem quality without substantial recognition usually means that ambition and/or innovation has prevented the act from scaling the dizzying heights of national recognition. I do know that many listeners of these acts strive to be “ironic” for the hell of it, but it is hard to imagine anything more ironic than innovation and ambition serving as detriments to an artist’s career opportunities.
In another ironic twist of sorts, perhaps The XX’s maturity can be attributed to their young age. It sounds nearly contradictory, but these four schoolyard friends from southwest London clearly embody a new musical philosophy that seems completely aware of the fact that pop music does not need to be overproduced, stylistically derivative, or full of Hollywood cameos in order to manufacture great hooks. It is a rare and admirable sight to behold, especially when art-rock natives like the Arctic Monkeys lately appear more focused on whether their songs are good enough for radio airplay than the album itself. Unlike most of their contemporaries, The XX have crafted an album, not a collection of songs that they jumbled together for purposes of exposure. The desperation is clearly not prevalent for the four-piece, which is all the more admirable when one considers that they are barely out of their teens. For their debut album, 2.0, it is audibly indicative that the members stayed up well past their bedtimes. Like Junior Boys or early Air, 2.0 possesses a late-night feel that can be attributed to serene soundscapes, mostly led by a rumbling rhythm section that paces itself perfectly. It complements chilly synths and husky vocals with absolute precision, alternating between concise bass lines and highly rhythmic propulsions when the song calls for it. It helps that, like many musicians, The XX seem to work almost exclusively at night. The quality shows.
Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft are responsible for these aforementioned vocals, showing their beautiful abilities in the form of both duets and solo accompaniments. Their voices often sound trapped in an icicle-laden cave, the reflection of reverb becoming apparent due to the minimalistic arrangements. Synthesizers and guitars collide in the beautiful “Infinity” as both interchangeably emit a soulful croon, with a slight tinge of Afro-pop being evident in the spright keys of the similarly presented “Basic Space”. This track reminds me of a Matthew Herbert effort; the arrangement evolves into an absolutely brilliant progression as Croft’s angelic vocals become complemented by Sim’s low, grizzly croon. He himself sounds a bit like Rufus Wainwright, perhaps driven by the seductive mixture of icy keys and slick guitar tremolos. “Crystalised” is another standout, opening with two simultaneous guitar progressions before unfolding into a largely bass-driven gem. The vocals of Sim and Croft do an exceptional job of building into the chorus, first delving into a duet before the explosive chorus of guitars, bass, and subtle samples that illustrate a sense of urgency with a distantly operatic synth pad. “We just keep on getting closer,” they sing before this moment occurs, once again showing that irresistible pop hooks can unfold from even the simplest of circumstances. 2.0 may be deemed minimalistic by casual admirers of pop music, but the fact is that The XX’s debut is more intricate and involved than most releases you are bound to pick up this year. All 11 tracks unfold with beauty, elegance, and precision, never hesitant to surprise a listener with innovation enclosed in an atmosphere of slight familiarity. 2.0 needs to be heard, as it is easily one of the best debuts of 2009.