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 and 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.
Label: XL Release Date: October 2, 2009 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon