“The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement.”
– Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose
If you are a fan of musical minimalisms, atmospheric indie rock, and electronic beats, there was a lot to like about the xx’s poised and elegantly understated performance at Hammerstein Ballroom last week. The young Mercury Prize-winning trio from the UK is Romy Madley Croft on electric guitar and vocals, Oliver Sim on bass and vocals, and Jamie Smith on electronic percussion and keyboards. Theirs is a stripped-down, austere and moody sound that relies on just a few echo-y guitar chord progressions, a handful of sliding bass notes and spartan beats to conjure deep feeling. Against this musical backdrop is Croft’s and Sim’s deeply affecting singing–a singing that is only possible with close mic’ing and serious amplification. Many xx songs feature Croft and Sim taking turns singing the lines of the songs which has the effect of making the song sound like voicing shared secret stories between them that we are listening in on. In concert, the quiet singing sounds powerful and intimate and the minimalist musical textures richly transparent.
While Croft and Sim sing and play at the front of the stage, it is percussionist/programmer Smith standing behind them who is most interesting to watch. (I plead guilty here to a percussion bias.) Smith had an array of electronic drum pads and sample/sequencer machines set up at three different stations across the stage. On most songs you could see him doing something I have only recently thought about as a bona fide kind of musical activity: electronic finger drumming. Standing in front of a hardware controller, Smith used his index fingers to slam out sampled kicks, snare drums, hi hats, hand claps, and other percussive shards in real time. On one song he even played steel pan–though I couldn’t see an actual pan. (And does this matter if Smith used real pan mallets and the sound was real enough?) The pleasure of watching Smith was that you could see him truly controlling the percussion parts–playing little fills, leaving silent spaces at the end of phrases, and, most importantly, keeping his own perceptibly imperfect time that didn’t ever sound quantized (save for a few pre-sequenced patterns he would trigger here and there while busy with something else). Thus, even in those moments where a song had a four-on-the-floor kick drum part you could hear Smith’s small imperfections. Smith also had a single crash cymbal set up at one station center stage. On one song, the percussionist’s right hand held a stick to play a ride pattern on the cymbal while his left hand index finger drummed away kick and snare patterns on tiny rubber pads. What a striking contrast between the acoustic and the electronic! But thanks to Hammerstein Ballroom’s powerful amplification, it all gelled together. If Smith’s finger drumming skills weren’t enough, he also played keyboards here and there. Hats off to his heavy musical lifting.
With the xx, less really is more. The band can extract drama and maintain musical interest from the most seemingly threadbare of materials, and their songs rarely follow popular music’s verse-chorus-bridge conventions. The xx will repeat parts and stay in a place for a while, letting intensity build by other means. It turns out that those threadbare materials–cycling around the notes of a minor triad, say–are anything but. And while I sometimes found myself wanting a little more –a few more strange chords, or maybe some denser rhythmic stuff–the xx make music their way, and theirs is as much about all the things they choose not to do.
“Angels”, the opening song on the xx’s recent album Coexist, is effective for reasons both musical and sonic. Musically, there are just four sound sources: Croft’s voice, electric guitar, electric bass, and drum programming. By the standards of multi-layered contemporary pop, it’s a simple instrumentation, but the music fits together in a powerful way. Each part itself is simple too: the guitar plays a 2-note riff that moves around, plus a few chords; the bass slides over a few notes, first in the upper range, then in the lower; the drum programming eschews pretending to be a conventional kit and alternates between sparse scattershot snare drum rolls and concert bass drum hits; and Croft’s voice rarely gets beyond whispering a melody within the tight confines of the first five notes of a minor scale.
“Angels” is also sonically striking. Each instrument inhabits a distinct space in the mix. The guitar is deeply reverbed to sound distant–distant as if off in a far corner of a cathedral; the bass is in a drier and closer proximity to sound like its amplifier is but a few feet from the mic; the drum programming is surreal: the concert bass drum so huge that it momentarily obliterates the other instruments each time it’s sounded, while the snare drum swims in a long tail reverb yet still sounds closer to us than the guitar; finally, the Croft’s voice has a super close-up and dry sound, as if Croft is whisper-singing with a hoodie on and her mouth an inch from the mic. On the one hand, “Angels” sounds like a realistic recording: like four musicians located at varying locations around a single microphone. On the other hand, the song also presents an impossible listening perspective that places the listener at the center of each sound. “Angels” is a simple song, but its arrangement and its recording give it reams of deep resonance.