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But I’d argue that’s exactly what makes The xx’s debut album, xx, so intriguing. You won’t find any jaw-dropping displays of technical and instrumental expertise. Rather, you’ll be fascinated by xx’s willingness to discard layers of musical complexity, leaving only minimalist, post-punk compositions with an alluring mood that is paradoxically substantive. In fact, their uniqueness earned the indie trio the Mercury Prize in 2010, with one of the judges concisely expressing the rationale for their decision in a single word: “atmosphere.”
The instrumental album prologue "Intro" embodies the style explored by The xx, confronting the listener with only a simple four-note melody on guitar in front of a synthesizer bassline, later adding strong electronic beats - courtesy of famed producer and remix artist Jamie Smith - and ethereal vocals. "VCR" follows, with the guitar and bass cycling through only a handful of notes behind vocalists Romy Madley Croft (vocals and guitar) and Oliver Sim (vocals and bass). Croft's desolate and softly intoxicating female voice graces the entirety of the album and echoes Sim's emo male voice, which is quite uninspiring but certainly fits within the music's context.
“Heart Skipped A Beat” and “Fantasy” seem to push the minimalist envelope farther than most other tracks. The former starts with a hushed, unassertive guitar riff which feels almost too empty, and the latter features only an ambient synthesizer behind ghostly, barely recognizable lyrics, manufacturing a creepily hazy atmosphere. “Shelter” creeps along slowly with a reverberating guitar behind Croft’s gently desperate lyrics: “I still want to drown whenever you leave / Please teach me gently how to breathe.”
But not all of xx is about liberal use of negative sound. “Crystalised” and “Infinity” feature more robust, complex rhythms and competing melodies throughout. It’s a relief to rediscover those prominent electronic beats after the consistently bare material on the rest of the album, and it’s probably no coincidence that these two tracks seem especially popular among many listeners. After respectively slow starts, “Basic Space” and syncopation-heavy “Night Time” share these qualities as well.
xx enters scarcely charted territory, and there’s something remarkable about how The xx makes so much out of so little. While you might get the most satisfaction from the album’s less vacuous tracks, their ability to elude convention with the thinnest of textures and challenge the listener’s expectations simply cannot go unnoticed.