Updated: Feb 16
A reflection of the UK indie electronic group that have soundtracked countless lives across the globe over the past decade.
How time flies, 2019 marks ten years since the xx took the world by storm with their breakthrough debut album xx. Two albums on and one band member less, the slow and subtle sound synonymous with the xx is still the order of the day. Having formed in their teenage years at high school in 2005, who would have thought this iconic indie electronic trio would soundtrack countless lives with hits such as Intro, Crystalised, Angels and On Hold.
For those unfamiliar, the xx consists of three members from the UK. There were originally four members with the addition of guitarist and console player Baria Qureshi. However, Qureshi parted from the group in late 2009 due to personal differences. On guitar and vocals, you will find Romy Madley Croft, who when performing takes centre stage. Accompanying her alluring guitar hooks is her timid voice. As soft as a whisper at times, the softly spoken singer-guitarist’s voice still manages to be heard across large arenas. Oliver Sim joins Madley Croft on vocals. His smooth deep-toned voice gels with Madley Croft’s incredibly, alongside the bass in which he plays, regularly the lead instrument in the trio’s work. Finally, there’s Jamie Smith who positions himself behind the other two on a raised platform. Smith takes charge of all things electronic, percussion, DJ-ing and sampling.
The UK band proclaimed in an interview with the Evening Standard in 2018 of being ‘born for the stage’ when performing. They confessed this as well when I was lucky enough to see them in that same year at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl. An open-air venue I feared of journeying to believing if it were to rain that the night would be ruined. Never had I felt more comfortable during a live show when it bucketed down with rain as the moody UK group created a loving and cosy atmosphere. The crowd was in disbelief when they revealed their nervousness performing in front of thousands. A strange revelation to me seeing as they headline festivals and sold out concert halls across the globe. This had the crowd holding their breath during lone pieces as they did when Madley Croft played Performance all on her own. Sim on the microphone encouraged the crowd to help her conjure up the courage to play. The rousing applause after still lays very deep in the memory bank. A song with deep lyrics transporting us to those times when you must mask intense emotions to please others. How she ‘put on a performance’ and ‘a brave face’ in this raw solo.
My theory as to how the trio can consistently perform in front of thousands despite their shy attributes is because when together on stage you are witnessing not just an indie pop band that will go into folklore, but a true friendship. You can see that they truly take comfort in each other’s company, bouncing off each other exceptionally well on stage. A deep friendship many people envy which is why they are still at large a decade on from their first album.
Now to the trio’s sound. You’re probably wondering, how does a band draw such a crowd without a live drummer? The xx don’t possess a live drummer, which they turn to their advantage. The trio engineer negative space like no other artists. This is a craft they have perfected for the last decade, displayed evidently in Angels, the first track off their second album Coexist. The interest shown both musically and lyrically, of the space between things is clear. The xx let the instruments ring out and dissolve into silence, foreboding that negative space is near. In a key segment of the track, as Madley Croft’s soft vocals and the instruments fade away into silence, the xx have conjured something that many have not, which is turn negative space into sound.
As touched on earlier, complementing the negative space is the trademark vocals of Madley Croft and Sim. Compared to the modern divas/performer voices of Ariana Grande and Beyoncé the xx’s is rather understated, yet they continue to be as identifiable as these juggernauts. These distinctive intimate voices have allowed for major moves in the trio’s work without straying away from their core sound.
This occurred in 2012 when the British group’s second album Coexist was released. The sophomore album certainly had its moments with the aforementioned Angels alongside Sunset and Chained. However, it was apparent that the xx had fallen into a trap that many artists do with their follow-up album after such a strong debut album. When the thunderous Mercury Prize (best British and Irish album of the year) winning LP xx emerged on the scene in 2009, the band’s emotion, image and sound had been cemented. Listening to Coexist, it was evident of the UK group’s difficulty in continuing to develop and move on as they settled for an album much the same as the first. Listeners found it lacklustre or were left dissatisfied. The xx’s continuation from their debut album was certainly a great LP, delving further into themes such as struggles in relationships touched on in the first album. Yet with a producer like Jamie Smith, one of the most exploratory and exciting manufacturers going around, in your corner you just wished they were more experimental and approached new ideas as they would later do in their third album, I See You.
eWhether the criticism of an all too similar album affected the indie electronic group is open to interpretation, nevertheless the band took a significant period off between their second and third records. This permitted certain members of the band to flex their muscles. One none other than personal favourite and a much-loved member of many, Jamie Smith. Under the better-known stage name Jamie xx, the sampling artist was able to resume from his reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album I’m New Here that he stabbed at in 2011. With many dazzling remixes to his name of megahits such as Adele’s Rolling in the Deep and Florence + The Machine’s You’ve Got The Love, we were always teased of a solo project in the works. This came in 2015, however, no one prepared us for a pure masterpiece.
Jamie xx’s full-length solo album In Colour firmly established himself as one of the best producers in the game. This album encompasses many genres including electronica, garage, hip-hop, dubstep and house that leaves listeners wanting more. You need only look to big-name producers such as Flume who have successfully conjured their own brand of electronic music. The xx head chef elegantly crafts sample after sample of this fresh and ground-breaking compilation that has infused the moody ballad emotion of the xx to lively club bangers. This is seen right from the get-go with the opening track Gosh as the perfectionist builds layers of loops on top of each other until you can’t resist dancing. Side by side with I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) featuring rapper Young Thug and the reggae fused Popcaan, a questionable combination on paper, however the trio surprised with a beautiful connection; and in Girl the producer provides a record that bursts with energetic vibes.
For fans of both Jamie xx and the xx, the major takeaways of the brilliant LP were the tracks where the beat wizard collaborated with his fellow band members. Stranger In a Room, See Saw and Loud Places featuring both Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft are crossbreeds of classic the xx work and contemporary dance. Particularly in Loud Places, a marvellous sample use of jazz drummer Idris Muhammad’s Could Heaven Ever Be Like This, Madley Croft’s sweet whisper hints of the track leaning towards the xx’s gloomy mood. This is captured in the very first verse as the softly spoken Madley Croft speaks “I go to loud places/to search for someone to be quiet with”. Listeners hang on to every word of Madley Croft’s voice as usual in the ‘quiet’ minimalist atmosphere of the xx and are swept away by the lush sweeping ‘loud places’ sounds of Jamie xx. Some might say this is no different from any song by the trio, but what Jamie xx has found here is the ability to crossover and segregate his sound with the xx and his own solo work in the one song.
Furthermore, with varied songs like these, the band hinted that they are capable of introducing a new sound. Come the beginning of 2017 when their third album I See You was released, the rumours of something different were solidified.
Beginning the new record with Dangerous, the stark contrast between I See You and the band’s previous work is clear. The startling blast of horns to begin with followed by a heavier bass and lashing of drums immediately set the tone of an exploration of new sounds. There’s also an indication that I See You will attempt to incorporate the talents of every band member, especially the soaring Jamie xx.
For the first two albums, the xx was all about working within the confined limitations they set themselves, whereas Jamie xx’s solo career has been about blowing samples wide open. What we find in the trio’s third album is a fantastic fusion of both. I See You sticks to the humble beginnings of the xx but with a more wide-ranging and speckled approach.
A prime example being On Hold, the lead single of the album. A forced pop attempt to be more extroverted, the trio step out of their shy bubble. Through a story of a man who broke off a relationship and believed he could still fall back onto it later on but was wrong, the fresh materialled group confess in the first verse they became ‘carried away’ and no longer wish to be complacent. There is a reference to their renowned use of negative space, with Madley Croft exclaiming additionally in the same verse that they cannot simply hold on ‘to an empty space’. In their limited lyrics that provide the suffering and sorrow we have grown accustomed to over time, we now see through their songwriting a more soul-searching and vulnerable trio attempting to try something bold and new.
Followed by the chorus in On Hold we find what will eventually be the major pillar of all songs in I See You, Jamie Smith’s sampling. A Hall and Oates sample to be exact. A pitch-shifted sample of the 1982 hit I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) that has us searching deep into the memory bank, a common action the xx have us do in the sample-dominated album. It is truly wonderful to see the group combine the highly successful work of Jamie Smith with what the band is releasing today, it truly animates the album. The shared talents of all members are recognised as well as who they were and who they are now. This hit managed to top charts that the band never thought possible of reaching. When it appeared that the trio may have hit a standstill this comeback record’s sprawling production pushes the Brits to keep evolving and moving forward.
It’s awesome for us fans to say that with this upward trajectory the xx appear to be capable of much more. With three boldly brilliant albums, a charming solo album and a mesmerising recontextualization, this once shy bunch of teenagers have evolved to be top-bill headlining old-timers in the indie electronic world. So, prepare yourself for some more tidy compositions by this tremendous trio.