The xx, four 19-year-olds from South London, fashion a slinky, shiny elegance out of one-finger synth lines, glowing sub-bass, a pattering drum machine – the kind of elements that, up until a few years ago, were more the preserve of dance producers than young guitar bands. Much was changed by the 2007 compilation By Night on US record label Italians Do It Better. The collection broke a number of bands (Glass Candy, Chromatics, Nite Jewel) while signalling a turn to a languid, nocturnal version of Italo disco. While The xx use these same mid tempos, hushed vocals and delayed guitar sounds, the breadth of their curiosity marks them out from the merely fashionable. Though not included here they have covered songs by both Aaliyah (‘Hot Like Fire’, 1997) and Womack & Womack (‘Teardrops’, 1988), a surprising range given that their delivery is akin to a subdued, deadpan Tracy + the Plastics (artist Wynne Greenwood’s electro-pop solo project).
There is little swing or bounce to the 11 brittle-sweet songs on The xx’s debut, though this almost sedated slowness isn’t sexless. Quiet call-and-responses between singers Oliver Simon and Romy Madley Croft only intermittently rouse themselves to a pulse or a snap. Their brooding melancholia recalls the glimmering, undead sound of certain 1980s bands (listening to xx reminded me that Echo was the name of the Bunnymen’s drum machine).
Perhaps not too much should be made of the fact that The xx formed while attending the Elliot School in South London, a secondary comprehensive school whose alumni also include Hot Chip, Burial and Four Tet. All of these have released relatively successful albums – of indie-electro, dubstep and pastoral electronica, respectively – each of which have polished and retooled a slightly peripheral genre, taking it to that point of success at which you wouldn’t be surprised to hear it advertising a mobile phone network. This is less a genre than a twinkling, hand-crafted tone of intimacy, and it isn’t intended as a criticism to say that almost every one of the songs on xx seems ready for use on television. (Accusations of ‘selling out’ stopped around the same time most bands started to have problems ‘selling’ much at all.)
I first encountered The xx on YouTube earlier this year, with the video for their single ‘Crystalised’. The four stand grim-faced and almost motionless, dressed in black and playing with their backs to a wall. Mannered as well as poised, the approach was still antithetical to the usual debut video of a hotly-tipped young band – this wasn’t intended to go viral. Aside from its many other virtues, xx is remarkable for being both commercially seductive and artfully frozen.