O2 Academy Brixton, London (09/03/17)
Everybody loves a good homecoming reception. South London collective the xx have the pleasure of savouring theirs across an entire week, having sold out a seven-night run at Brixton’s O2 Academy to conclude their 2017 European tour. And as if a week’s residency in the 4,900-capacity venue wasn’t quite festive enough, the celebrations have been further embellished by a sprawling line-up of additional shows, parties, film screenings and radio events which the group have curated as part of the area’s Night + Day festival. For a group whose beginnings were so rooted in tense silences and whispered revelations, their current circumstances would seem to indicate an unabashed embrace of the limelight.
Yet such assumptions would be wide of the mark; in truth, it’s easy to see why the group pulled out all the stops for this particular return. As Oliver Sim emphasised during a fervent speech at the close of their second night’s set, this part of the world has been a stomping ground for all three members of the group since childhood. Treating the audience to a quick trip down memory lane, Sim recalled the night that his mum dropped him and bandmate Jamie ‘xx’ Smith off at this very venue to see the White Stripes: the first gig that either young’un had ever attended. This kind of “I never dreamed it’d be me up here” patter is common enough at any given live show, but Sim’s words carried a genuine charge, and the kick that the trio get from performing here – not to mention the adulation they receive from crowds on home turf – was immediately palpable. As with the xx’s music, through the nerves and shy wordplay, there’s a resolute honesty underpinning every move they make.
Speaking of, one of the main pleasures to be experienced when witnessing the group in a live capacity is a refreshed appreciation for their unaffected intimacy. The tight-knit friendship between the performers was discernible throughout, from wide-eyed glances between songs to a few clumsy hugs at the set’s climax. Likewise, the anxiety from which their songwriting springs was charmingly apparent: Sim and Romy Madley Croft fumbled through their brief speeches with quavering voices and helpless grins, their hearts clearly overwhelmed by the deafening, drawn-out applause that crowned several of the evening’s highlights.
The group were well-equipped to make the most of their extended tenure in the Academy: flanked by rotating pylons of mirrored glass and with a reflective ceiling that dipped and tipped throughout the night (showing off Smith’s impressive array of tech in the process), it was a marvellous set-up which would surely have dwarfed the group were their own figures not so quietly magnetic to behold. The result was a show of controlled tension-and-release, complemented with the kind of light spectaculars that seemed to directly channel the emotional eddies conjured in the music, from bristling agitation (‘A Violent Noise’, ‘Infinity’) to dewy-eyed tenderness (Croft’s spotlit solo rendition of ‘Performance’).
Teed up by the lush cascades of ‘Say Something Loving’, the xx’s set offered a democratic run throughout three albums’ worth of treasures. The contributions from their first two records work a stark magic that’s enough to fill the lofty recesses of venues such as this (Madley-Croft’s guitar lines revereberated from wall to wall like great shafts of light), but there were particularly fine results to be heard when the group tinkered with longstanding favourites, marrying the spectral sounds of old with the newfound mettle present in I See You and Smith’s own In Colour. A late highlight was reached across a seamless segue from ‘Fiction’ into the ever-beautiful ‘Shelter’, before the trio allowed the night to ascend heavenwards on the golden harmonies and choice samples of ‘Loud Places’, which closed the main set on a giddy, stratospheric high.
Although several of their renditions couldn’t quite silence the yakking of a handful of loudmouthed punters, the xx provided a beautiful experience that was moving in all the right ways. The frequent moments in which the whole hall was flooded with light drew subtle attention to how keen the xx currently are to connecting with their fanbase, and the nature (and aesthetic) of these performances goes some distance to disambiguating the meaning behind I See You’s title. The xx may still dabble in the shadows, but they’ve been peering out at the rest of the world ever since their intimations were first discovered. And on nights like this one, the gaze they return to the crowds brims with a heartfelt gratitude.
Say Something Loving // Crystallised // Islands // Lips // Sunset // Basic Space // Performance // Brave For You // Infinity // VCR // I Dare You // Dangerous // Chained // A Violent Noise // Fiction // Shelter // Loud Places // On Hold // Intro // Angels
My Spin on Masterworks: 19 of 25
Young Turks, 2009
xx works a strange magic in making the mundane sound beautiful. It’s a shapely and beguiling début from one of the most surprising success stories of modern British music, and an album on which space is prioritised as much as sound to convey the intimacy that can be attained by two people. The dusky atmospheres of the xx’s songs are immaculately rendered thanks to Jamie Smith’s production, and each instrument possesses a signature style that seldom deviates across songs: cut-glass guitars dressed in reverb, warm and nagging bass lines, beats that coax and nudge rather than dominate. The end result is a work that is vague, hushed, and in many ways, so simple that it could appear flat and lifeless on paper. Even when the xx are at their most sonically lavish, the crux of their work is always plain – both musically and lyrically. And it’s this very plainness which makes xx such a quiet gem.
These songs are soft, lived-in, humble: love’s aches, pains and joys transmitted in short, simple exchanges. The charmingly succinct ‘VCR’ offers perhaps the best distillation of the xx’s appeal more than any other song. Its lyrics are nothing to marvel at, but the unremarkable nature of these phrases helps them to register as genuine. “I think we’re superstars,” Romy Madley Croft hums, accompanied by plinking xylophone. “You say you think we are the best thing.” As is the case throughout xx, there is nothing superfluous present: no overreaching poetry or sweeping gestures; just the acknowledgement of companionship and contentment. In its short span, xx rolls through the highs and lows of intimacy: those unparalleled feelings of warmth and security, as well as the sour fallout and lingering hurt.
Each song coheres around a you-me dynamic. “They” are never once mentioned, and the back-and-forth between Croft and Oliver Sim’s “you” and “I” gives xx its quiet, under-the-sheets intensity. It’s a two-hander trick that is enrapturing to follow as the vocalists divert and then dovetail, as on the excellent ‘Crystalised’, with its mesmeric undertow and a central hook composed of sighs. The singers generally trade verses before merging together for yearning choruses, and ‘Islands’ employs this trend with even lusher results, its heart-on-sleeve admissions of infatuation set to verses that bump and flutter like stirred hearts. The sentiment that “I am yours now / So now I don’t ever have to leave” taps into the hot cocoon of a relationship in bloom, delivered with wide-eyed naivety that is subsequently offset by the whispered pangs of ‘Heart Skipped a Beat’. In these subtle shifts in mood, the xx demonstrate a sharp awareness of when to accentuate the innocence or weariness of their music, so that they sound by turns awkward and wise.
It is intriguing that neither singer is talented in a conventional sense. Croft and Sim both possess pleasant voices, but neither is particularly dexterous or adventurous (at least not in this collection) with their range or performance. Yet this is not a bad thing, and is positively essential to the nature of xx. Suiting their plain lyrics, Croft and Sim perform with little pizazz, and it’s in their unpolished performances that one can hear their longstanding chemistry with one another. When the singers join to form a helix, their closeness burns above and beyond the limitations of their voices, giving these songs a sense of real attachment that is impossible to fake. At the record’s centre, each singer takes a solo outing, and the relative lack of dialogue between the two yields captivating results. Sim’s ‘Fantasy’ resembles an eerie fog that builds into a claustrophobic, droning second half, which is balmed by Croft’s gorgeous ‘Shelter’. It’s hard to pick standouts from an album of such consistency, but ‘Shelter’ makes a strong case to rank as xx’s highpoint. Its lovely, lonely guitar motif is matched by what is possibly the band’s most vulnerable moment: “Maybe I had said / Something that was wrong / Can I make it better / With the lights turned on?”
Whereas the singers provide xx with its emotional push-and-pull, Smith is the spine of the group, taking the private entreaties of his bandmates and packaging them with grace. His sparse beats and crisp production work point towards the club, but he strips back his influences to suit more reflective spaces. While drawing on elements from hip-hop and R&B, the xx’s songs are confined to insular settings: bedrooms and night buses, lit in the glow of laptop screens and desk lamps. ‘Basic Space’ pares down a skipping rhythm into its most skeletal form to fit the song’s glacial sheen, while ‘Infinity’ is given an added tension with the brittle crack of percussion that cuts through Croft and Sim’s ominous duet. It’s harder to gauge the input of fourth member Baria Qureshi, who was ousted from the band in shady circumstances soon after xx’s release. However, her contributions can be heard if one listens carefully; present in the additional layers of guitars and keys that occasionally flesh out the whole, and which were notably absent during the even more minimalist Coexist.
Although it references many of the prickly truths of relationships, xx never digs deeply into complex topics. The delicacy and transparency of the xx’s songwriting can’t hope to cover everything, but nor does the band pretend to. xx is an album of simple promises, private dilemmas, repressed hurt and tenderness, and it touches on these themes gently and with just the right level of mystery. The wide-eyed promises of ‘Stars’ are beautifully arresting in their bare-bones form. “Dear, it’s fine / So fine by me / Because we can give it time / So much time” croon both vocalists, closing the album on a note of the softest optimism. Like the ten songs that precede it, ‘Stars’ hints at so much more than what is offered on the surface. The simple components – single repeated notes, stark beats and plain words – are simultaneously basic and open-ended, glimpsing at a larger world from within its own bubble.
In some ways, extended forays into the xx’s world can become a little cloying. The decent but meandering Coexist showed that the group’s sound can be spread a little thin, and there are definite limitations to xx itself. In terms of the group’s long-term progression, it’s difficult to imagine for how long such a simple aesthetic can be successfully mined, and their upcoming third album will answer this question one way or another. In some ways, however, the thirty-eight minutes of xx are enough; after-hours thoughts in which anxiety and tranquillity collide. For the jubilant side of nocturnal life, we have the luminous solo output of Smith as Jamie xx. But when it comes to the doubts, the awkward pauses, the uncertainty and breathing space, we have xx. Once one has sunk into its intimate atmospheres, it quickly turns into one of those special albums which becomes a companion: music which you’re keen to have close at hand for the wee hours, and those mingled feelings of longing and belonging.
In Colour (Young Turks)
Dance is a diverse form of magic. Presented professionally, it is valorised as an art in its own right: a display of finesse and precision, immaculate and expressive. In its more accessible and common guise, on the other hand, ideas of craft are abandoned in lieu of a fundamental reach for escapism. Dancing leaves our brains on the backburner and releases our energy physically, clouding the regard for one’s own image (hence the risk of looking like a bit of a muppet). The feeling overrules the thinking, and – especially in concentrated environments – the rush of released endorphins unlocks a transcendental feeling of bliss: a sense of belonging and infinite potential, as anxieties melt away along with self-consciousness. The mechanics of the pleasure are incredibly basic, but a great dance record can make an instant, visceral connection such as this, where the compulsion is so swift and compelling that it utterly transports the listener.
He may be only several years into his career, but Jamie ‘xx’ Smith has already demonstrated an intuitive grasp of how dance music functions, applying his sonic Midas touch with an acuity which can be breathtaking. His reputation has steadily grown since his emergence in the late-noughties, operating as the thoughtful backbone of quiet champions The xx, remix artist par excellence, and producer-of-choice for a burgeoning legion of famous fans including Drake and Alicia Keys. With his CV so impressively stacked, Smith has become one of the leading lights in contemporary dance music, even if his persona is one which seems to be permanently shrouded at the back of the club. Surrounded by his more outspoken collaborators, he resembles a watcher in the shadows; a magpie whose curious mind is constantly alert to the sounds around him. As a result, even while heavily invested in his tentpole projects, Smith has amassed a broad collection of field notes and sonic morsels, which he decided to corral into his first solo album as late as autumn 2014.
It speaks dividends about Smith’s talent that in spite of its casual conception, In Colour is a phenomenal result. Smith takes the world chronicled in The xx’s work – lonely, delicate confessionals as intimate as whispers between friends – and floods it with light, filling the empty spaces with mesmeric beats, bright splashes of keyboards, and samples – of his own candid footage and homages to past greats alike. The xx’s music never sounds less than intensely personal, and Smith’s own sculptures can serve as insights into the tastes of an insatiable audiophile. Yet the auteur’s audience-savvy instincts elevate these tracks far beyond personal indulgence, as he taps into that transcendental escapism with a consistency that dazzles.
The irresistible tug of ‘Gosh’ dispenses such magic immediately. Its playful pirate radio samples and seismic, siren-like crescendos harness the wide-eyed excitement associated with the beginning of a journey – in most cases, a Journey to the Centre of the Rave. The effective, gleefully deliberate build-up is a sheer joy to return to, but as with much of In Colour, it’s a trick that never feels overthought. It’s polished, but not obsessively so, and likewise, Smith’s many influences are assimilated into the odyssey without sounding clunky or distracting. ‘Sleep Sound’ draws from the same twinkling ambience as Until the Quiet Comes-era Flying Lotus, braiding together dreamily cascading melodies and staccato vocal snippets into a pulsing shuffle. Elsewhere, one senses the warmth of Caribou, swirls of Orbital, and the starry fug of Floating Points, all brushed between the rave-ready beats which jump between ’90s house and modern breakbeat.
And then there’s the presence of The xx, whose signatures are never fully abandoned. While In Colour‘s trip is Smith’s own brainchild, these ‘narratives’ occasionally overlap with those of The xx, as Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s brief appearances come across like parallel events witnessed in the same space. It’s a balance perfected on ‘SeeSaw’, where Madley Croft’s voice floats in and out of the warm clatter like a solitary individual in a packed club. She makes a more direct return for ‘Loud Places’, though her yearning vocal is subverted and then glorified as Smith twists the melancholia into a neo-gospel plume, with the aid of Idris Muhammad’s ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’. Sim’s own outing on ‘Stranger in a Room’ is the cut which cleaves most closely to The xx’s traditional template, but the burbling electronic melody keeps the line drawn without disrupting In Colour‘s headier flow.
But leaving aside all baggage and just looking into the manifest sounds, In Colour is distinctive and flavoursome enough to stand alone. Put simply, these are just great tunes, man. They don’t need overwrought analyses or lofty interpretations to work, because they sound terrific of their own accord; sleeky produced and seamlessly sequenced into a fantastic single listen. As with all nights out, there is a misstep or two along the way; most noticeably the cameo of Young Thug, whose incongruously X-rated verses almost derail the otherwise glorious ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’. His crude wordplay chafes awkwardly with the album’s otherwise blissful tone, but if you can tune out Thug’s references to his squishy dick, there’s barely a blemish to be found on In Colour. From the giddy pulse of ‘Gosh’ through to the crystal-cool swagger of ‘Girl’, it’s a near-flawless showcase for Smith to loosen up and transport his audience to higher places, proving dance’s power as a catalyst for an extraordinary experience.
“OH MY GOSH.”
Happy New Year, readers! Thank you so much for chasing a link (or simply stumbling) onto my first proper End-of-Year list: I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I fretted over writing it in a vaguely articulate manner. As with the 2011 reassessments, I’ve listed below my ten favourite albums of 2012, each accompanied by my two cents regarding why each one is such a banging listen.
In addition, following my Album of the Year, I’ve drawn up two smaller lists for Honourable Mentions (because the process was pretty painstaking this year), and records which I sadly didn’t have time for in their year of release. I thought they’d spice up an otherwise relatively vanilla listing system, and give more scope about what I was digging in 2012. For now, onto the main event!
My Top Ten Albums of 2012
As musicians, they’re as tight as can be, but Django Django still manage to spool a loose and colourful sound which is as upbeat and bouncy as their funky moniker suggests. The group’s eponymous debut projects tried-and-tested elements through a thrilling Technicolor prism, with psychedelic flavours offset by hugely catchy hooks, ranging from Hail Bop’s feelgood swagger to the tropical touches of Life’s A Beach. Perhaps it could have been trimmed by a song or two (Zumm Zumm is all good fun, but three minutes would have been plenty!), but Django Django’s debut is a promising and laudable first step.
Standout Hail Bop
Grizzly Bear’s music has always been layered, both in sound and tone: it takes several listens to unearth each keynote and lyrical twist alike. But on Shields, the snarl beneath their sweetness was fully realised at last. For perhaps the first time, Grizzly Bear could be mistaken for being a straightforward rock band in places, yet Shields never loses sight of its intrinsic beauty. Sleeping Ute snarls with turbulent percussion and abrasive guitars, but settles into a soft reverie; Yet Again tumbles through anxious harmonies and a squalling climax; and the grandiose bursts of Sun In Your Eyes are never overwrought. The result was among the most captivating releases of the year, filled with tension, but always hinting towards catharsis. “Never coming back”? On this evidence, I hope that’s not the case.
Standout Yet Again
From The White Stripes (RIP) to Another Way To Die, Jack White has always been an enchanting and intriguing individual, almost cartoonish in his larger-than-life mannerisms. One music publication has compared him to Willy Wonka, and I’d be inclined to agree with that metaphor in relation to his first solo album, which takes the listener on a tour of the mechanics behind his gleefully unhinged façade. There’s still performativity here in spades, but this is White’s most personal record yet. He may have mastered the power to entertain like few others, as evident on the funky shuffle of Missing Pieces and the blues guitar acrobatics which still go down a storm, but listening to the likes of Blunderbuss and On And On And On, it’s clear that there is a bloodied heart beating behind that lavish storytelling.
Standout Love Interruption
Bat For Lashes
The Haunted Man
Before The Haunted Man, I’d never really looked into the music of Natasha Khan and Bat For Lashes, aside from hearing the occasional single. But taking a punt on this one definitely paid off: Khan’s third is dramatic art-pop smart enough to restrain itself when it counts. It’s also a decidedly British album: however you interpret the contents (who is the man in question, and just what is haunting him specifically?), Khan paints a striking picture of a rural landscape tinted with the otherworldly. Marilyn and Horses Of The Sun marry synths with opera; the bravura Lilies is awash with imagery of milk and raindrops; and centrepiece Laura commands great power with minimal tools.
I was very apprehensive approaching The xx’s second album: their first is such a perfectly formed piece that I was worried that a follow-up would risk feeling tacked-on: a failed attempt to rebottle the quiet lightning of their impeccable first. Thankfully, while Coexist isn’t quite as perfect as xx, it’s still a remarkable record, and the three-piece have held tight onto the magic which made them such a success. The guitars glimmer a little brighter than before, the gentle bass runs are more prominent and the dub beats more experimental, but the intertwining vocals of Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim still command the same power that they did in 2009. The result is a confessional, nocturnal listen, more fluid and sophisticated than its predecessor, but equally human in its sentiments.
I really don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to enthuse about Beach House before it stops being annoying and just becomes tragic. I think one more indulgence will tide me over for the next year, so here we go. The Baltimore duo’s fourth album might not have been particularly adventurous in terms of breaking fresh ground, but the subtle changes brought to the table this time around made Bloom distinctive in their catalogue. It’s an album which glitters throughout, achingly sad and yet strangely uplifting in its own way. The songwriting is consistently strong, but what really makes Bloom tick are its tiny moments of transcendence: the guitar melody which arrives halfway through Other People, the vocal pirouettes in New Year’s chorus, the dreamy piano ascension which is released one minute into Irene: the list goes on. It’s a meticulous but magnificent listening experience which keeps on giving.
I’d also like to add that this album houses my personal favourite song of the past twelve months, in the form of Wild. Wherever I am listening to this song, my mood is lifted no matter how I’m feeling. Simple, shimmering and exultant.
Like I’m sure a lot of people did, I only became aware of Tame Impala after hearing Elephant repeatedly on the radio. The strutting riffs were stamped into my head through repetition, and after reading a few positive reviews, I thought it might be worth checking out the single’s parent album. After just one listen in full, I was hooked: this album is incredible. Pretty much entirely put together by Kevin Parker, it tackles a rather miserable topic lyrically, but it stirs its moodiness into a melting pot of joyous noise. Boasting some of the most upbeat and irresistible music of the year, gilded with a ’60s gloss, Lonerism swerves from cosmic jams (Endors Toi) to freakouts (Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control), but keeps everything in check with exuberance and catchy hooks in spades, while Parker’s nasal croon never becomes indulgently whiny. Instead, Lonerism is bags of fun, eye-opening, and surprisingly poignant when taken as a whole.
Standout Why Won’t They Talk To Me?
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple didn’t blow all her audacity in that twenty-three-word album title: her first album in seven years was even bolder in its choice of aesthetic. Most often only supported by stark, spidery piano melodies and drum machines, Apple lets her voice take centre-stage, as it should. The result is forty-three minutes of raw emotional potency, detailing cracked relationships, monstrous creatures and fractured histories. Apple’s vocals are a tour de force: shaky, explosive and ripped straight from the lungs, she’s an evocative figurehead, something which is amplified over such unpolished production. Every wound is made relevant, every message heard loud and clear. I haven’t heard anything quite like this before or since, and The Idler Wheel… deserves to see Apple as a more widely-recognised talent in the singer-songwriter world.
An Awesome Wave
For a band whose single releases have become so successful individually, it’s miraculous to hear how wholesome Alt-J‘s first album sounds altogether. The opening notes of Intro signal darkness falling, and with the arrival of a clattering drumbeat, An Awesome Wave instantly whisks the listener away. Ignore those who are still sneering “smart-arse”, because Alt-J reaffirm faith in the belief that indie and pop music still hold the power to pull some wonderful and wacky new shapes. I covered most of this in my full-blown album lowdown (catch it elsewhere on this blog) back in April, and I still stand by my original judgement eight months on. An Awesome Wave is as headrushingly good as its title suggests. Every individual piece fits the puzzle perfectly, even when there are leaps in style and formation between tracks. To cap it off, after playing it at least thirty times over, it never fails to enthrall me every time, from start to finish. Easily the debut of the year, and the indie success story of the decade so far.
Standout Dissolve Me
Album Of The Year
From April until about October, I thought I had Alt-J pegged as my winners for 2012. Then Fiona Apple‘s The Idler Wheel… took over in my estimation, at least until I heard Tame Impala‘s Lonerism a few weeks later. However, after a final assessment, I’ve realised that the album which I have returned to most this year – and which I have ENJOYED the most – was the third album by Claire Boucher’s Grimes project. I’d like to think that this constant agonising is an indication of how good a year 2012 has been for the music industry, and to be fair, the top four albums in this list are all as strong and vital as each other. But if there can only be one winner, it has to be Visions.
The creative process was tortuous, and the resulting album could all too easily have ended up as a bloated, self-indulgent mess. Instead, by some miracle, Visions is a lean, winning piece of work. It’s a strange mixture of dream-pop, dubstep, electronic experimentalism, and even sci-fi. Boucher is far from a virtuoso, but the rougher edges of Visions only cement its charms further. It’s something of a cracked gem, and I quite like calling it a cyberpunk album: it sounds desolate and hypermodern, but it’s also brimming with invention, with looming arrangements lifted by Boucher’s pixie-like presence. The songs themselves are both fun and troubled in equal measure: the spooked Be A Body utilises a glorious falsetto leap; Circumambient makes the dancefloor sound deadly; and Genesis skates wonderfully close to joyous synth perfection. If this is what our dystopian future is going to sound like, then count me in.
They didn’t quite make the cut this year, but here are the next five albums which just missed out on places in my top ten. Listed in order of merit:
- David Byrne & St. Vincent: Love This Giant
- Hot Chip: In Our Heads
- DIIV: Oshin
- The Staves: Dead & Born & Grown
- Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball
Five That Got Away
And finally, here are five albums which slipped through my fingers this year, due to money / time / consciousness constraints. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with each of these in the next few months, and some of them may appear in next year’s amended list. This list doesn’t feature ALL of the albums of 2012 that I regret missing, but of that (significantly longer) list, these are the ones I most wanted to catch:
- Cat Power: Sun
- Flying Lotus: Until The Quiet Comes
- Four Tet: Pink
- Jessie Ware: Devotion
- Sigur Rós: Valtari
And that’s just about it for music 2012! Thank you very much for reading, I really appreciate your time and consideration. Do get your own opinions or criticisms in if you’d care to, I’d love to hear them. For now, happy listening, and Happy New Year!