The human voice has an amazing capability of imitation; in conjunction with this, human memory can attach itself particularly well to the sense of hearing, in particular, melodies and rhythm, which, in oral traditions of music such as gamelan, are memorized in full and performed, passed on through generations without any notation. This has much to do with vocal work found on XX Teens debut album, Welcome to Goon Island. The primary vocalist on the album plays continually with the timbre and articulation of his voice throughout the album, and in such play back and forth, sings in harmony with many distinctive and recognizable vocalists of the short history of rock music.
The resemblance to Tom Verlaine of Television fame runs throughout the album, but most clearly on the first track, “The Way We Were.” A line can then be drawn from Tom Verlaine to Verlaine’s own major influence, Bob Dylan. Dylan is best heard on the track “B-54” in the way the vocalist draws out the soft “i” sound in words like “de-CI-sions” and “op-IN-ions,” tugging on those soft “i” syllables like strings on a guitar. This playfulness and exploration of words, their slurring and “correct” pronunciations also leads us to another influential vocalist, Mark E. Smith. Like Smith, the vocalist of XX Teens is prone to unforeseen outbursts, sudden ramblings, and a wild ambling quality to his vocal style that sends his lyrics just to the brink of arrhythmia. This ambling feature brings us back once again to Tom Verlaine and what I see as the most defining aspect of XX Teens’ Welcome to Goon Island.
Tom Verlaine’s voice, in some of Television’s looser compositions such as “Little Johnny Jewel” and “Elevation,” gently vacillates within the boundaries of rhythm, holding certain syllables longer than others without any easily observable patterning. Furthermore, his enunciation isn’t the best, sometimes running words together, and even sometimes letting his voice be obscured by the guitar. What this exhibits is a certain carelessness, which not meant to discredit Verlaine, nor the primary XX Teens vocalist (Rich Cash to be specific) to whom I will attribute this same quality.
The ambling nature of this vocalist is very lax, and, if not careless, than maybe carefree. This lack of care is mirrored in the musical stylings of certain songs, which have a fairly dominant guitar and drum rhythm driving the songs, which will occasionally drop out and give way to a to a short meditation on the sitar, recordings of wild birds, or even simple whistling, accompanied by island drums. Due to the slurred lyrics, it is often hard to tell why these interstitial moments are placed where they are. Similarly, the vocal stylings and inflections of Tom Verlaine, Bob Dylan, and Mark E. Smith are easy to recognize, but not so easy to place thematically. One might presume that it is because the band is after some punk/post-punk aesthetic, which, could be argued, but I’d rather not make such a presumption, and instead only go off the information I seem to have now, which would be precisely the information I don’t have, as my asking “why?” is not given any sort of readily observable answer. What I find from this information, or lack thereof, is that precisely what I’ve noted already, a certain carelessness in the music: the vocalist seems to amble through his music, without too distinct a rhythmic center. Similarly, I, as a listener, am given no sort or thematic center for the music, no “why” given to me, or, perhaps more accurately, not enough of a clue for me to go search for some “why.”
What we have then is an un-centered music; I don’t mean tonally un-centered, but one that is without any firm grounding, no rhythmic security or thematic certainty. This is what I think embodies the fervent lethargy of the music on Welcome to Goon Island, XX Teens’ debut album, and this lethargy is what listeners are left with. I might go so far to say they are not given it, but simply left with it.