All you need to know about the xx is inside the single “Basic Space.” A shuddering beat like a boat against a dock, a high-pitched guitar, a bass that glides from shadow to shadow, and atmosphere maximized tenfold. By the time the following lyric is delivered: “Don’t look away when there’s nothing there,” you couldn’t if you tried. The xx are arbiters of stealth and no band is currently better at sneaking up on you. Their name may make it hard to Google them but it’s also thrillingly apt.
Brilliant usage of ghost notes and fastidious attention to negative space are what make this debut so auspicious. The xx were blogged all year as canny goth-soul tricksters, a baby band to be reckoned with later. Their early work included a remix of Magic Wands’ “Warrior” which was basically a cover, all big drums and bravado; and another actual cover, a swoony pondering of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire.” Oh, they also covered Womack & Womack’s “Teardrops.” (Here is where I dispense the word “range.”) Their original material, derived straight from the best kind of post-punk paranoia, seemed so supple as to be highly snaggable, which didn’t necessarily lower expectations for the first LP. Now it’s here, it’s sheer, and it’s unbreakably pretty.
Nearly every song on XX involves the raging bliss of silence. Every note struck has a startling sort of hangtime; echoes off copper domes wouldn’t be far-fetched as comparisons. It shouldn’t contradict the earlier estimate of stealth to say you hear every move they make. Synths rustle to themselves for a measure, then disperse. A harp (I think) hovers in and out, then heads for the ether. The boy/girl vocals of Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft tendril in and out of all of it; their interplay is almost queasy.
Given the dynamic it’s almost too easy to characterize XX as extended conversation between casual lovers. On “VCR” the talk’s of big love, (presumably not the HBO one) and the retro technology of the title (if you don’t think couples bond over shit like Super Nintendo you’re not spending enough time on Tumblr). Their voices overlap neatly on “Crystalised,” nailing a sort of comfortable static. He says “sun” at the precise point she says “sea” and it’s pretty glorious. “Heart Skipped A Beat” gets more wistful: “sometimes I still need you,” Sim admits and Romy echoes him and you see all the crushed cigarette butts and strewn suitcase contents and drafts of desperate emails behind these two. All at once it’s not casual anymore and you feel remarkably indie. Er, romantic. XX really is a romantic record and here you thought the term was supposed to have lost all meaning.
“Where would I be if this were to go under/ that’s the risk I take,” Sim avers on “Islands,” post-oping the past decade as a place where feelings were okay. As recognizably eighties as XX is, it might not exist without Set Yourself On Fire. That was probably the last good indie-rock record that was this overtly sentimental. When you look at the xx in their ramshackle black it’s even more surprising, and 2005 looks better than ever.
Again, XX is a marvel of managed space. Mystery burns in the corners of “Fantasy” and “Infinity” like an Unforgettable Arcade Fire. On the former Sim mumbles months of the year like incantations (“for the desired effect/ would you come back August or June/ and I hate that tomorrow’s December/ see you August/ see you June“) while sinister keyboards shiver afoot. “Infinity,” the longest track at 5:13, sinks into little silences around a guitar part like a train whistle while Sim intones “give it up” and Croft insists she can’t. All these track titles are indicative—”Basic Space,” “Islands,” “Fantasy,” “Infinity.” It’s a longer game the xx are playing and, dare I say, they’re winning it.
Video: “Basic Space”