Don't forget to rate the album at the end of the post.
Welcome back to Blinded By The Hype, the PMA feature in which we revisit albums once the hype has died down. In today’s world, music is released at a machine gun pace. It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type scene, and “lately” usually means this week. Rarely do we stop to smell the roses. Even good albums get overlooked as time passes. And we almost never – aside from year end lists – take a look backward. Hindsight is 20-20, and we’d like to apply that retrovision to set the record straight. Hence, Blinded By The Hype. A quick refresher for those of you who might have missed out on the rules the first few times.
1. Only full albums will be re-examined.Tracks are finicky enough to review the first time, and how a single track fares over the course of a few months is more an issue of personal preference than quality. Album grades mean more, album spins mean more, therefore we’ll stick to albums.
2. Only albums that received 80+ grades will be re-examined.No point in re-opening old wounds. If it wasn’t good with the hype, it won’t be good without the hype. Sure, there are albums that get better with time. No doubt about that. But hype isn’t involved there – it’s tracks that are growers and lyrics that are layered. Totally different ballgame, we’ll stick to the initially well-received.
Ha! Rule Change! Since we haven’t had that many 80+ albums that really would change post-hype (Are we just that good? Perhaps.), we have decided to occasionally flip this feature on its head, re-examining albums that got poor reviews and deserve a better break. Just to keep you on your toes.
3. Only albums that are at least 3 months old will be re-examined.Hype is all about timing. When an album is released, there is an upswell of buzz that races around the blogosphere. Sometimes that buzz cycle extends for a couple months – there’s the leak, the first single, the release, the second single, etc. So we’ll wait until the dust settles before stirring things up again.
This edition’s focus? The debut album from The XX, aptly titled xx.
Release Date:August 17, 2009
Original Score:59/100 (Rating Scale)
“It soon becomes obvious that The xx are rather a one-trick pony: although first single ‘Crystalised’ is beguiling, the album’s ten other tracks seem like nothing so much as alternative takes on it – and what’s more, inferior versions that are more or less indistinguishable from one another. What originally seemed atmospheric and moody comes across as something closer resembling apathy: ironically, xx would be vastly improved by some of that pizzazz and swagger that can be so wearisome in other musicians.”
- Elle Hunt, Original PMA Review
“For what it’s worth I think you have confused ‘apathy’ with restraint, (a rare thing in music these days).”
- “Sixto,” Comment on Original Album Review
“Really don’t think you’ve looked as this record closely enough. It’s so inventive, so carefully-crafted and all about subtle tricks, tricks you seem to have missed.”
- “Jamie,” Comment on Original Album Review
I’m not going to lie, I was late to The xx party. For some unknown reason, I resisted listening to these British wunderkinds for months, despite my friends’ urging. But when, finally, I let the needle drop on this piece of wax, I was hooked.
I listen to a lot of music in my everyday life – a lot of new music. And I’ve spent a fair amount of time pondering how our music consumption habits in today’s world affect the type of music being produced. In the blogosphere days of Annie and Passion Pit, it seems that a catchy hook and a quickly accessible beat are the tried and true formula for finding success. Most bands get one or two songs to make an impression, and most songs get 30 seconds or so to do the same. It’s no wonder that Hype Machine is consistently dominated by beat-forward remixes and other songs that immediately grab the listener.
So it’s a testament to The xx’s staying power that they’ve managed to grab more than a small number of ears with a record that is, to say the least, unassuming. xx has a constant groove, a laid back feel that immediately drops the shoulders, unclenches the teeth, eases the stress headache. It’s an album that grows on you, from a band that counts on you giving them the time to let the music do the work.
The closing phrase of xx, on the song “Stars,” is a microcosm of the album. It’s a humble halt, a tempered close that leaves notes hanging with little resolution. The xx’s debut lives as it ends, not with bangs, but with whimpers. It’s not going to rock your socks off and it’s not going to soundtrack your next party. But it will slowly make its way into your consciousness until you’re singing along to a track you didn’t even realize was playing.
It’s no surprise that this album suffered from hype backlash the first time around. Upon first listen, it is unremarkable. It’s not a boring collection of tunes, but it certainly is easy to let one bleed into another, creating the possibility for subtlety to be mistaken for blandness. Oliver Sim’s voice strays pretty close to generic singer/songwriter territory – a range that is generally shunned by the Dave Longstreth and Kevin Barnes loving indie rock world – and is the type of velvety smooth that reminds me of alt-rock radio stations. There are slow guitar solos that don’t seem to drive anywhere, lingering without any sense of urgency. It’s unclear what type of band The xx are, let alone what they want to be. And we don’t like things that we can’t put in a box.
But outside that there box, The xx have made a damn good record. It’s not unremarkable, it’s understated. It’s not dull, it’s developing. It’s not simplistic, it’s seductive – The xx aren’t going to reveal too much without a commitment from you. No matter how you see xx, it’s certainly not a series of variations on “Crystalised.” That song is far from a mission statement; at best it is a snapshot of what the group does best – well-balanced male and female vocals, controlled drumming, and plenty of space buffering each note, all resolving to a catchy (but not overly so) chorus. Songs like “Basic Space” and “Islands” follow that formula nicely without being reproductions – they gently push on the boundaries of the sound that The xx have established, creating wonderful sidesteps along the path through the album. When you reach the end of that path and the final notes of “Stars” fade away you realize, hey, there was a lot more to that than I originally thought.
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Chris Barth is a columnist here at Pretty Much Amazing. You can read his more succinct daily posts at his music blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.