Space and silence and uncanny intuition add up to the xx
MUSIC Can two voices get any closer — or be laid any more bare — than those of the xx's Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim? The band's spare, pared-down pop is so minimally cloaked, with either instrumentation or pretense, that you could swear the pair were scarily close-knit sibs: the Chang and Eng of U.K. rock — the doubled letters of the xx seem less like a set of female chromosomes than a symbolic representation of Croft and Sim's doubling.
But then what else would you expect from two 20-year-olds who've known each other since they were 3, growing up together and into their roles as music-makers? "We went to kindergarten together," Sim says of their early childhood bonding. "I don't remember a time in my life when she wasn't in it."
The twosome met the xx producer-percussionist Jamie Smith when they were all of 11, forging a tightness that has outlasted the coming and going of keyboardist-guitarist Baria Qureshi — and has comforted Sim during the group's current journey round the globe. "I'm so glad I'm doing this with my best friend," Sim says, complaining of the lack of creativity and privacy on the road (he's been taking refuge in Polaroid picture-taking). "I can imagine it being very lonely being this far from home."
Far they are. The mild-mannered bassist-vocalist-songwriter has to struggle to make himself heard, against all odds, in a loud North Carolina bar carved out of an old train car, where the xx is performing that night. The success of The xx (Young Turks/XL, 2009) — which landed with a soft yet palpable thump atop critics' best-of lists last year — has sent Sim, Croft, and Smith off around the world for far longer than Sim feels comfortable with. As for the recording, "I don't think we even intended to perform it," Sim explains now. "Going from that to a world tour is very weird."
Weird because the xx's bone-piercing, emotionally perceptive music — crafted by two barely legal 20-year-olds who likely wouldn't get past the bouncer at many of the bars they've played — has spoken to so many. Few have used so few tools — an old Casio kids' keyboard, a drum machine, guitar, and bass — to say so much, so intimately: The xx's plangent, eerie spaces and iChat-honed lyrics echo the aural landscapes of Young Marble Giants and kindred student of London's Elliott School, Will Bevan of Burial. Taking barely traceable cues from the latter as well as from 1990s R&B performers like Aaliyah (who the xx has covered, along with Womack and Womack), the xx is the rare band that makes the space between the sounds, the pauses between the words, speak just as loudly as lyrics. "We're big fans of subtleties of music," Sim says. "If you give it room to breathe, you can bring forth a different sort of drama in them."
At first the sparse arrangements were all they were capable of. "The synchronicity of it came partly from us just trying to play our instruments," Sim says. "We couldn't have complemented it if we tried, and as time has gone on, it's been about restraint, and we try to go for simplicity for itself. Me and Romy don't have particularly loud voices as well. It wouldn't make sense to make a overwhelming sound that we had to contend with vocally."
And in many ways breaking these songs down to their bare pop parts — crystallizing its elements in such boiled-down beauties as "Crystalised" — is a way of distilling the intensity of adolescence, and the cacophonous overwhelm of 21st century experience, down to its very vivid essence. Or a way of capturing on 11 tracks, a few fleeting moments from age 16 — when Sim and Croft wrote "VCR" — to 20. "For me it's quite strange looking back at the album," says Sim. "Even though the three or four years doesn't seem like so much time, going from 16 to 20 is such a big change. I kind of see myself growing up in the whole album. It's a bit of a diary." *