By the time the second track of the xx's debut reaches its chorus, it's clear that xx is something special. "VCR" is a delicate bit of introspective pop, centered on the exchange between two vocalists who seem only ambiguously aware of each other's presence: At times they finish each others' sentences, but otherwise pursue their own confessional monologues. And when they draw out the song's aching refrain, "But you...you just know...you just do...," it's unclear whether they're speaking to each other. It's an utterly absorbing performance, allowed full command of the listener's attention by its subtle instrumental backdrop.
That musical austerity is the most striking aspect of the xx's sound. Each song is founded on the spare, kinetic interplay between programmed drumbeats and Oliver Sims's lightly thumbed basslines. From there, Romy Croft and Baria Quershi fill out the songs with minimal guitar work, using simple riffs as much for texture as for rhythm or melody. Negative space is a major part of the xx's aesthetic, so that every melodic phrase resonates, as though the band has somehow found a way to suspend their nuanced melodies in the aural equivalent of zero gravity. One gets the impression that every handclap and twinkling xylophone note was meticulously placed, where the same interjections would have sounded obligatory or cluttered on a fuller record.
If that sounds trying in print, it's a pleasure to report what a wholly engrossing pop album the xx have crafted. Indie sorts will emphasize the band's similarities to Joy Division and Portishead, and they aren't wrong, but fans of Regina Spektor's woozy ballads or the coyly sex-pop of early Belle & Sebastian will find as much to enjoy. xx sounds as though it could have been released any time in the past three decades, and would be equally at home on a mixtape with Roxy Music, New Order, and Interpol. Whomever their influences, though, the xx seems refreshingly detached from any recent trends in pop music, indie or mainstream. And whatever its instrumental touchstones, there's no denying that xx derives its abundant soul from Sims and Crofts's utterly charming vocal exchanges.
Croft's the more capable of the pair, possessed of a breathy deadpan that makes her sound like the shyer kid sister of the Waitresses's Patty Donahue. Sims and Crofts both have a way of elongating their words, all sharp exhales and lilting syllables, that ups the ante on the album's underlying sexual tension while still sounding tossed-off and wholly unaffected. Their chemistry is what finally makes xx so much more than fashionable mood music. Whether one takes their hushed duets as melancholy pillow talk or as the hard confessions that precede a breakup, their understated emotional heft always pumps warm blood into what might otherwise be quite a cold record.
On tracks that only feature one of the singers, like "Fantasy" or "Shelter," one's attention starts to wander, but even those tracks manage to stay on the more interesting side of ambient. Some indie pop groups make dramatic grabs for their listeners' attention through grandiose hooks, while others prefer the slow enchantment of ethereal soundscapes. The xx opts for an appealing middle ground between immediacy and ambiance, and the highly sophisticated results are all the more impressive for being delivered by a foursome of 20-year-olds who have somehow acquired a knack for the kind of quietly ambitious songcraft for which some bands strive for their entire careers.
If there's anything wrong with the album, it's the contentment to present subtle variations on the same basic ideas, ultimately covering little sonic terrain by the time the album wraps up. It's hard to argue with this approach, though, when said terrain proves so compelling. If the xx doesn't take many chances, it's because they have enough confidence to execute their stripped-down aesthetic without resorting to gimmickry—and that confidence is well-deserved. Even though "Stars" concludes the album a lot like "VCR," the impression is that an emotional transfiguration has been completed. That's because Sims and Croft use their final words to replace the ruminative mood of the former song with a note of hesitant optimism: "But if stars shouldn't shine/By the very first time/Then, dear, it's fine, so fine by me/'Cause we can give it time, so much time/With me." It's a perfectly executed ending for an album whose understated pleasures will surely amount to one of the year's most treasured releases.