Monday, September 10, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: The xx - Coexist

Minimalism isn’t cool anymore. These days, bands are pushing the extremities of sound and volume. Death Grips are taking loud to a vicious new level, and Animal Collective are stuffing their compositions so tightly that listening to their records is like sticking your hand in molasses and trying to get it out. When a band takes a step back, it’s usually met with criticism, for example earlier this year Dirty Projectors’ relatively spare (in comparison to the ever-shifting Bitte Orca) Swing Lo Magellan, saw mild and mixed acclaim. On that note, say a band known usually for their stripped back approach takes an even colder and more subtle take on their music.

Enter The xx. Their first self-titled record was a beautiful embodiment of what can be done with nothing. Just 3 kids out of England, sporting the darkest guitar pop tunes around. With guitarist/singer Romy Madley Croft, bassist/singer Oliver Sim, and beat producer/percussionist Jamie xx, they were writing arrangements so sparse you could hear them breathing. How do you follow something like that? Their answer was to take even more away.  On Coexist, the trio aren’t making sweet melancholy indie rock anymore; they’ve moved into another world of cold, dark, minimalistic pop with elements of house and future garage. The guitar’s presence on the record is greatly reduced. For example, it comes in only half way through on the track "Chained" for a short solo before it dips out again.

Despite using bare bones instrumentation, the tracks don’t feel like they’re missing anything. The opening "Angels" is a gorgeous guitar ballad with quiet marching percussion, and "Missing" is the first time The xx has ever felt “epic." After the track drops out, it comes back in with the wail of a guitar and Sim singing more passionately than he ever has before.

Of course, a new record wouldn’t be new without the band stepping into fresh territory. "Tides" starts out with both singers in unison, creating a chilling atmosphere before the track switches gears. It brings in one of the funkiest bass lines in a The xx track, and the track morphs into a gloomy dance pop number. The house flavoured beats don’t stop there, as the last half of the 5 minute “Swept Away” is an extended bass and guitar jam over pulsating beats.

Calling Coexist adventurous is out of the question. The xx didn’t change their sound by much, but they did change it enough to make the record unique from the first. They shift their sound into a different, unexplored area for pop music, but still maintain the spare and quiet arrangements that make the tracks undeniably works of The xx. Coexist is a reaffirming statement of substance over presentation.

Score: 8.5/10

1 comment:

  1. I would just like to point out that this review is a wrong opinion.

    And I don't think it's so much that simplifying your sound isn't in vogue (because people always like getting more out of less), but if your band starts going down a road of sound that many other bands have gone down before (which is more likely to happen if you start using simpler instrumentation), your band better have the personality, songwriting, and other chops to make you stand out. Otherwise, it reeks of an artist resting on their laurels, and nobody likes that.

    Arcade Fire are a good example. They stripped down their sound to a more straightforward rock ensemble on The Suburbs, but they made up for it with a strong, unifying thematic structure to the album. To what degree they were successful, that's up to the listener, but there was at least the effort.