The xx


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There was a lot I enjoyed about this week’s show – I managed to sound vaguely engaged by talking about Bandcamp and Sound of 2012 and I managed to sound detached from reality by imagining the war wound that could have resulted in Jamie N Commons’ vocals. The world is in balance. Also, this song is absolutely brilliant, and shall thus be receiving the show and post adornment treatment:


Tigerlily – If You Were There, You’d Understand

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Tomorrow I’m starting a journey to Glastonbury. The day after Glastonbury I embark on a transatlantic tour the likes of which Kerouac could never have dreamed of (well, Las Vegas and Florida). As such, this blog may have to take a little downtime as I doubt I’ll have extended access to a computer for a little over a month. So I’m going to post tracks by lots of the artists I’m looking forward to seeing next weekend as a sort of temporary swansong(s). Until next we meet.

The xx – Fantasy (YSI)
Snoop Dogg – Drop It Like It’s Hot (YSI)
Mos Def – Auditorium feat. Slick Rick (YSI)
Stevie Wonder – Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (YSI)
The National – Terrible Love (YSI)
Mountain Man – How’m I Doin’ (YSI)
Wild Beasts – The Devil’s Crayon (YSI)
Midlake – Roscoe (YSI)
Tom Williams & The Boat – Wouldn’t Women Be Sweet (YSI)
Meursault – One Day This’ll All Be Fields (YSI)

So here we are, the final list, my five favourite albums of 2009, I do hope you’ve enjoyed my selections, and maybe found some new stuff for your mp3 players to eat up. Speak to you all soon!

5. Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – ‘Em Are I

When I first listened to this latest effort from New York’s premier anti-folk troubadour/comic book artist I expected what I’d heard before in my brief forays into the Lewis back catalogue; gentle, off-centre ditties about charmingly witty and strangely perverse subjects. In fact, I was kind of wrong. For a start, a lot of this album is a lot louder than I expected it to be, with opener ‘Slogans’ blasting the whole affair into life in a whirl of Libertines-ey razorwire riffs whilst I actually found a lot of the subject matter to be charming and witty, but mostly conventional in its approach. And maybe that was the best way to really introduce me to Jeffrey Lewis, expect the unexpected. The album takes lyrical left turns throughout, with love songs to Greyhound buses (‘Roll Bus Roll’) giving way to existential musings (‘If Life Exists?’) before discussing how whistling prevents hearing corpses talk about you (‘Whistle Past The Graveyard’) whilst musically we’re met with folk ditties, Cake-style freakouts (‘The Upside-Down Cross’) and indie-punk anthems (‘Broken Broken Broken Heart’). It’s Lewis himself who makes this album what it is then, infusing every track with his own irrepressible charm and verve, not to mention his distinctive nasal whine (certainly not a bad thing, by the way). There’s just so much to be told on this album, you just want to hear what he’s telling you throughout, and it’s a storytelling experience as much as anything else and that’s what makes it quite so special.

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – Roll Bus Roll (YSI)

4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Not having been alive in 1983, nor having done any kind of extensive research into the music of that time, all the talk about how POBPAH (lovely acronym that that is) are simply rehashing the famous C83 tape flies right over my head. I’ll tell you what I hear on this album – some unfairly talented young people making shimmering, occasionally loud, twee indie music in an almost perfectly-realised way. It doesn’t matter that this has been done before, and it certainly doesn’t matter that the band have done their research into what they want to sound like before they made their album, what matters is that this is one of those albums where every song feels like an old friend after one listen. And it’s the second listen that counts, where you realise for the first time just how well made all of these songs are. ‘Young Adult Friction’ is a gloriously sparking love song, ‘A Teenager In Love’ is quietly glimmering pop masterpiece whilst ‘Everything With You’ is a punk-flecked headbanger for kids in NHS specs, complete with a wonderfully out of place stadium rock guitar solo. If I was a bit younger and a bit further back in my relationship, this would be the perfect soundtrack for falling in love to.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Everything With You (YSI)

3. Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another

Future of the Left are quite likely the most menacing band I’ve ever heard. Menacing because they’re not balls-out terrifying like a death metal band, menacing because you can never quite tell whether they’re joking, menacing because there’s always the suspicion that they’re even angrier than they let on, and it might just all tumble out of your speakers and throttle you without you realising. And I love them for it. There’s something in that commitment to releasing your anger through music, but in no immediately obvious way that makes me smile. It seems the intelligent way to do it. Packing barely twelve songs into just over half an hour, this is a tightly-wound ball of aggression, taking in ‘The Hope That House Built’s barely-contained war march, hellish (PUN) anthem ‘You Need Satan More Than He Needs You’ and the spring-loaded punk of ‘Stand By Your Manatee’ before winding down with the spectacularly odd spoken-word explosion of ‘Lapsed Catholics’. It all seems like the perfect follow-up to Curses – it has all the same vitriol, the same mish-mash of the heavier genres and the same sense of deranged playfulness of subject, but something is lying there behind it all, differentiating it, with a bigger grin, and a bigger sense of something truly dangerous behind that grin.

Future of the Left – Chin Music (YSI)

2. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

This was, as any regualar readers will know, my most anticipated album of the year. After three EPs that I couldn’t get enough of and after experiencing them live, I really couldn’t freaking wait for Sigh No More. I was not to be disappointed. Choosing some of their best songs from the original EPs and surrounding them with some excellent new additions to the catalogue was a very good call, appeasing the fans with new material whilst showing new ones what they’ve been missing. This is a group who seem assured of their positions within each song at all times, using each instrument to full effect, and bringing every track to life with incredible precision. We all know they’re masters of the uplifting buildup by now, with tracks like ‘Winter Winds’, ‘The Cave’ and ‘White Blank Page’ all exhibiting that particular talent, but there’s a wealth of different styles on show here, with quieter tracks like the brooding ‘I Gave You All’ being given just as much space to breathe as its more ostentatious neighbours. Marcus’ beautiful keening vocals are another source of wonder, moving from scratching solos to taking its place amongst the rest of the band as they harmonise like nobody else. Not only that, but ‘Dust Bowl Dance’ showed room for expansion, embracing electric instruments and making an almighty racket with them. It has to be remembered that this is a debut album too, they may have had more experience than many new bands do when they recorded it, but for a band to put together such a coherent, beautiful record on their first try is nothing short of amazing, and their new-found larger fanbase is just reward for the hard work they’ve put in so far.

Mumford & Sons – White Blank Page (YSI)

1. The xx – xx

To be honest, this was probably the easiest choice of them all, but I still ask myself one big question whenever I think about this album – where the hell did it come from? In today’s world of leaks, Myspace fame and PR overload, how did The xx seem such an unassuming prospect until they hit us with xx? It was a miracle of timing and possibly purposeful mystery that brought the band to everyone’s attention at the same time, creating a singular (mainly bloggy) fervour to write about them just before the album came out and they played the summer festivals. It’s not just the mystery of their appearance that makes them incredible though, I’m still bowled over by just how assured a debut this is, particularly from teenagers with basically no experience or exposure to the world they were entering. And yet The xx have made an album that should be and, I imagine, is looked at with incredulity to think getting a better sound means adding more to it. These are eleven tracks of quiet, gloomy romance that have been picked back to their bare bones, skeletal reminders of what they could have been, and how unnecessary it would have been to fill them out. Songs like ‘VCR’ get by with so little instrumentation they could almost seem incomplete, but occasional touches of bass or the barest hints of synth high hats push them into their own uniquely quiet territory.

Romy and Oliver’s vocals are the real centre piece though, their interplay, weaving in and out of each other, joining together and overlapping is a masterclass in how boy-girl vocals needn’t be a gimmick or oppositional; they can act in symbiosis, saying the same things in different ways. The instruments act in a similar way, with quietly picked guitar parts following bass throbs while gentle synths wind their way around both. In ‘Heart Skipped A Beat’, the sparse drum machine dance beats lead the way, allowing for other instruments to make their way into the mix, quietly creating an almost imperceptible crescendo that disappears as quickly as it formed. It’s the Jamie Smith’s well-studied exercise in silence-as-production-technique that accentuates these moments, makes them important to the listener, and elevates the vocals above the rest – and it’s the silence rather than anything else that characterises this album. It’s an odd idea, but silence has been the only true new sound this year – almost everything else on this list can be traced back to someone elses’ music, but the silence on xx is so singular it becomes its own feature, and that’s why this album is the most important, and, more usefully, the best of the year.

The xx – Heart Skipped A Beat (YSI)

Just as a round-up, here’s the full list:

1. The xx – xx
2. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
3. Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another
4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
5. Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – ‘Em Are I
6. The Horrors – Primary Colours
7. Mos Def – The Ecstatic
8. Telekinesis – Telekinesis!
9. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
10. The Maccabees – Wall of Arms
11. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinsons – Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson
12. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
13. Hockey – Mind Chaos
14. Pull Toger Tail – PAWS.
15. Bombay Bicycle Club – I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose

Well it turns out that I and, more importantly, the hype, was right. The xx are, in fact, fucking brilliant. And that’s official, because I said so. After hearing “Crystalised”, then seeing them live, and finally getting my sweaty palms on a copy of their debut album xx, I’ve questioned whether they can truly live up to the amount of praise they’ve been receiving throughout, but after all bases are covered I’m still convinced. They are amazing.

The album is just ridiculously assured in every area. Musically it retains the air of sparseness, spindly guitar parts winding themselves around the already intertwined vocals of Romy and Oliver whilst the sampled drums give certain songs the simple beats they require, and others the rhythm to spice them up. In the production department, the band’s own Jamie Smith has excelled, and has proved that new band’s don’t need the overbearing hand of some super-producer to produce their hype-albums. The silence, the echoes and every nuance of the album has been thought about and polished to perfection. Equally, there’s no element of the album that seems over-produced, allowing the band’s stated policy of making the record sound as similar as possible to their live performances to be completely true. Finally, the lyrics are perfect; simple, but never cheesy. The theme is almost exclusively love, or at least lust. With beautiful, tense, overlapping interplay between the two singers on “Crystalised”, or Romy’s beautiful lament of “Maybe I had said/Something that was wrong/Can I make it better/With the lights turned on?” and the pure joy of requited love in “VCR” there’s always a flourish or vocal hook to make you sit up and take notice.

As an album, it’s incredibly well put together too. We have quiet, gloomy tracks (“Night Time”), more groove-driven and oh-so-almost dancable tunes (“Islands”), and they roll into one another perfectly, without ever seeming too similar to the last. God, I could wax lyrical about this album for quite some time, but I urge you to buy a copy and just sit in a darkened room and listen, it’s just so perfect. I really can’t see anything topping this as my album of the year, although I do have the Mumford & Sons LP to listen to next, so it could be a close one…

The xx – Islands (YSI)
The xx – Heart Skipped A Beat (YSI)

I said I’d never go back, but after seeing Radiohead on the lineup, my girlfriend and I just had to head to Reading just one more time, and I have to say, despite the overt commercial interests, hordes of idiots and general irritating atmosphere, it was a bloody good day. We started at the Festival Republic stage with Bear Hands, who continued my own personal tradition of seeing bloody good opening acts. With the drum and bass volume pushed up high, the band’s shambolic songs were imbued with a sense of power and urgency, and worked really very well. The singer looked either terrified or quite bored, and they didn’t play my two favourite songs, but “Golden” and “Vietnam” were excellent, and translated very well to the live experience.

Noah and the Whale win the dubious honour of most underwhelming performance of the day. Their sound seemed dwarfed by the Main Stage they found themselves on, and their new material, live at least, sounded a little too close to the Snow Patrol soft rock style for my liking. Luckily, we had The xx next. Lining up together at the front of the stage, the dark-clad teens found themselves faced with a bigger crowd than any other in the Festival Republic stage (at least until bloody La Roux came on later) and truly lived up to the hype (Machine). I’ve read somewhere that the band chose their distinctive, empty sound partially because they could play it exactly the same live as on record, and that is certainly true. Songs like “Crystalised” and “Basic Space” drew large cheers and already sound like future singalong hits, and the whole set was very cohesive. As well as being generally brilliant, they also win the award for best marketing effort -huge boxes of T Shirts, cardboard X’s and stickers were handed out, and it seemed like everyone was wearing them for the rest of the day (including Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend during their set).

There wasn’t a lot on for quite a while, so we headed to the Alternative tent for a while and saw some comedy. We saw four stand up sets – Kojo (misogynistic, brash and not very good), Jeremy Hardy (good, but perhaps a little old for most of the Reading crowd), Adam Bloom (good and rather odd) and Brendon Burns (absolutely hilarious, offensive and wonderful). But the real reason we headed there in the first place was for Adam Buxton and his BUG show. An hour (I think) of music videos and shorts interjected by the amazing Mr. Buxton, we were treated to some incredible work by lesser-known directors, as well as Adam’s own brilliant efforts. Two of the standouts were Pes’ “Western Spaghetti”, an animation of making a spaghetti recipe using no food (watch it and you’ll understand) and the video to Wiley’s “Cash In My Pocket”.

Next up were Vampire Weekend, who pulled out a set of their trademark summery Afro-Indie and got the whole crowd dancing to hits like “A-Punk” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” as well as playing newer songs like “White Sky”. Yeah Yeah Yeahs bounded on afterwards and were easily my nicest surprise of the day. I do like their singles, but based on Show Your Bones I didn’t think they had much in their locker beyond that. Well, happily, I was proved wrong, with a set spanning all three albums, and an incredible performance by Karen O. She truly is that rarest of things, a real life rockstar. Bounding around, with a strange shrimp-like costume (with detachable headdress and armbands no less), yelping, encouraging the crowd and generally having a bloody good time of it, she took the set to a new level and I was left enthralled. The penultimate band of the day was Bloc Party. My first impression wasn’t of their music, but Kele Okoroke’s Trent Reznor-like transformation into muscliness. But past that shocking revelation, Bloc Party’s third main stage set in three years was very much more of the same, which is never a bad thing. Despite not particularly liking the second album and having not listened to the third at all, they always put on a good show, and songs like Positive Tension and Flux are just excellent anyway.

Right, for the next section I’ll try not gush, but I’m still excited a day later so bear with me. By 9.30 we’d secured a good place at the Main Stage, and stood waiting for the mighty Radiohead to make their entrance. Their technical set up was incredible, a series of what were essentially huge fluorescent lights that could change colour and create effects. For instance, when Thom sang ‘it should be raining’ during “The Gloaming”, it simulated rain, and during “Nude” it looked as though there were floating candles above the band. Eschewing the normal screen images simply of the band playing, each screen was split into six sections which showed oddly-angled images of all the band members playing. I won’t go through every song (as tempted as I am) but highlights included a rare airing, and even rarer opening, with “Creep”, the brilliance of “15 Step”, explosive renditions of “Just” and “2+2=5”, falling in love with “Lucky” all over again, the entire crowd falling silent during “Karma Police”, the sheer incredible scope of “Paranoid Android” and Thom quickly covering Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Maps” before going into “Everything In Its Right Place”. Every band member looked pleased to be there, Thom pulled out some incredible dance moves and it was everything I could ever have wished for for my first ever Radiohead show, I simply can’t state quite how much I loved it, and how good Radiohead are. Anyway, enough of that, here’s the full setlist and some songs. Now excuse me while I go lie down.

Creep
The National Anthem
15 Step
There There. (The Boney King Of Nowhere)
All I Need
Nude
2+2=5 (The Lukewarm.)
The Gloaming. (Softly Open Our Mouths In The Cold.)
Climbing Up The Walls
Street Spirit [Fade Out]
Reckoner
Karma Police
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Just
Idioteque
Exit Music (For A Film)
Bodysnatchers
You And Whose Army?
Lucky
These Are My Twisted Words
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Paranoid Android
Maps – Everything In Its Right Place

Bear Hands – Golden (YSI)
Noah And The Whale – Rocks and Daggers (YSI)
The xx – Basic Space (YSI)
Adam & Joe – Ratatouille (YSI)
Vampire Weekend -Mansard Roof (YSI)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Hysteric (YSI)
Bloc Party – Positive Tension (YSI)
Radiohead – 2+2=5 (The Lukewarm.) (YSI)

This is going to have to be one of those bandwagon posts I’m afraid, but with very good reason. The xx have, at least in my eyes, come out of nowhere to take the world (of blogs) by storm. Amongst last year’s NME-fuelled explosion of “Gloom-Rock”, we were subjected to hateful platitudes towards copyist bands like White Lies and Glasvegas, both with only one or two really good songs between them. But their brand of gloom was overblown, pushed forwards by booming bass and anthemic choruses, and if you really think about it, is that what “gloom” sounds like? The xx are the ones to really nail it for me. Sparse arrangements, whispered vocals and silence add up to make up for not only gloomy, but really freaking brilliant pop songs. My favourite at the moment is the band’s debut single, “Crystalised” with its interchanging boy-girl vocals that never become twee, its ever-increasing sound and the eventual culmination into a brilliant verse of two separate vocal tracks on top of one another before a gradual slow down of everything draws it to a close. With talk already of an album to get into everyone’s “best of” lists, The xx have certainly charmed the bloggers, and will hopefully manage that with everyone else too before long.

The xx – Crystalised (YSI)