xx Debut Album: A Track-By-Track Review

August 14, 2019 marks the tenth anniversary of The xx debut album. The self-titled collaboration between Romy Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie xx is an astounding effort from the U.K. dream pop group. xx blends intimacy, minimalism, and musicality at an extraordinary level that resonates a decade later.

The album comprises eleven tracks that combine for a 38:34 run time. Within those songs are heartfelt duets, entrancing arrangements, and profound art. The production backing the music is spartan relative to many electronic bands. Instead of flooding the instrumental portion of xx with expansive layers like indie contemporaries Washed Out and Beach House, the production is toned down.

This minimalism adds to the beauty of xx. It may not work for every group, but it does for The xx. Even the vinyl gatefold photos are small and intriguing images.

Much of the singing on the record features duets between Romy Croft and Oliver Sim. Often filled with heartache, the shared vocals heightens the emotional quality of the album. This strengthens the bond between audience and artist beyond many electronic bands, where the multilayered musical vibe trumps any story.

The music on xx dazzles in its own right. It is most noteworthy on the instrumental “Intro.” This otherworldly track begins the record and serves notice that the album is special.

Their unique sound manifests itself in different ways over three records. The preceding two albums maintain this approach, although the band’s sound is expanding over time. 2012’s Coexist adds a club influence to otherwise minimal music. 2017’s I See You enlivens the band’s brand with more pop-friendly music that grew out of Jamie xx’s brilliant solo record In Colour.

No matter the band’s direction on future projects, the love affair with the band still goes back to the first notes on The xx debut album.

xx Debut Album Review

Intro

This is the most difficult song to put into words. How do you explain a track just over two minutes long and has no lyrics, yet is a song that I am deeply connected to?

“Intro” is a mood. It begins with a repeating guitar riff and a subdued synth layer. A thunderous drum beat snaps through the introspective music. There are no vocals in the instrumental aside from vague background singing.

There is nothing tangible to say why “Intro” is a hit other than innate musicality from The xx. The song’s bass and drum groove taps into the soul. The curious way to begin xx is quintessential xx music. Not excessive, yet effective moving. “Intro” is similar to The Alan Parson Project’s “Sirius.” The simple combination of notes is effective and epic.

 

VCR

The first xx song with lyrics pivots from the instrumental depths of “Intro” to the essence of The xx. Romy Croft begins the record with the wistful “You. You used to have all the answers.” After a few lines, Oliver Sim responds with “Wanna find myself by the sea, in another’s company…”

The simple conversational style of their duet pulls back the curtain on the group’s style. It is the first of several xx songs that eavesdrop on an intimate conversation. The exchanges represent the opening scene of a play. After the first dozen listens, “VCR” becomes less of a song and more the first scene in a dialogue between two leads.

Crystalised

The best all-around song on The xx debut album, “Crystalised” was mixed early in recording sessions. “Crystallised” shows how effective subtlety can be in music. Romy Croft’s signature repetitive guitar hook and a simple beat are of a canvas for intimate lyrics.

You’ve applied the pressure
To have me crystallized
And you’ve got the faith
That I could bring paradise

The rhyme on “ised” brings out the passion in the Croft-Sim partnership: cristalised, paradise, satisfied, alive. In an album full of passion, the lyrics on “Crystalised” are the most ardent. The track furthers the ongoing dialogue between both singers as an emotional affair.

 

Islands

In an interview with Sound On Sound, xx producer Rodaidh McDonald explained the group’s recording process. The bass and guitar were tracked first and the vocals were last. The process reveals itself in “Islands.” The mid-album track has excellent vocals from Croft, but it is a pleasant bass that steps into the foreground on the mid-album song.

 

Heart Skipped A Beat

Minimalism is hard to pull off as an album concept, especially with electronic music. It is barren and uninteresting when it is not done well. When executed well, it is genius. “Heart Skipped A Beat” is a wonderful duet between Oliver Sim and Romy Croft with beautiful play from all three musicians. Tracks like “Heart Skipped A Beat” would be filler on many albums, but on xx it is just another great song.

 

Fantasy

Aide from “Intro,” “Fantasy” is the most appropriately named song on the first xx record. Oliver Sim sings into a vast soundscape, as if he is a siren reaching out to passing listeners. Over a minute into his serenity, Sim delivers a bass line that transitions into an otherworldly drop. The remainder of the track is subdued bliss. The trance breaks up the interplay between Sim and Romy Croft and is a brilliant transition to the next piece.

Shelter

With Romy Croft as the sole voice in the track, “Shelter” is sung by a character yearning to make everything right and connect with a partner on the same level. This is most obvious in the chorus,

Maybe I had said, something that was wrong
Can I make it better, with the lights turned on.

The entire track is a bid to match souls, making it one of the most emotional songs on the xx debut. Combined with “Fantasy,” the solo narrative is a well-placed departure from the record’s duet structure, allowing Croft to carve out her own spot in the album.

There is also an amusing imperfection on the song. In an interview with Sound On Sound, xx producer Rodaidh McDonald described how a busted amp made an unlikely music contribution:

“A screw or a valve came loose or something,” says Rodaidh. “And there was this real rattling sound on there. It sounds like a shaker or something like that, but we played it back and we were like, ‘Wow, that sounds amazing!’ It was just like this missing piece of percussion that the track needed!”

 

Basic Space

Romy Croft and Oliver Sim receive the bulk of the attention on xx due to their vocal interplay, but the first xx record is an all-around effort. Jamie xx is critical to the insertion of beats that fill each song.

“Basic Space” is Jamie xx’s most interesting piece. The simple rhythms blend well with Croft’s guitar and her singing with Sim. It is also an example of how track listing matters. The entire record has a perfect transitional order and the quiet nature of “Basic Space” sets the table for the album’s liveliest songs.

 

Infinity

Romy Croft is an underrated guitar player. The under-produced nature of xx music does not place her alongside the likes of St. Vincent and Steve Gunn as modern day shredders, but her role in the band’s unique sound is critical. The bass and drums create unique space in their music. She has a terrific knack for filling that void with tasteful guitar licks.

Some of her greatest work comes as “Infinity” builds to a climax. She finishes the shared vocals between herself and Sim with an escalating loop. Just as it seems like the album is going to finally explode, Croft slips into a subdued “Wicked Games” part to close out the track.

 

Night Time

In the same Sound On Sound interview, Rodaidh McDonald compared the xx debut album to an early hip-hop record.

“A lot of my favourite records when I was young had a lot of vocals and drums and samples and not that much else. People pick up on different things in the xx and different references, but to me, it was the simplicity of early hip‑hop that I heard in it.”

I never thought of that aspect of the record prior to reading his interview, but the comments were an instant revelation. That uncluttered style is apparent on “Night Time.” Romy Croft delivers solo vocals and the rest of the band stays in the background. A quiet beat from Jamie xx picks up the back end of the track, allowing for a true minimalist/hip-hop vibe.

 

Stars

The xx debut album concludes with a plodding bass line from Oliver Sim and one last duet between himself and Croft. Their chemistry reaches an all-time high as they trade some of their most intimate lyrics, leaving one last powerful stamp on an incredible record.

But if stars, shouldn’t shine
By the very first time
Then dear it’s fine, so fine by me
‘Cos we can give it time
So much time
With me

xx Album Bonus Tracks

 

Hot Like Fire

The xx debut album has great leftovers worth investing listening time in. One of these, “Insects,” is a brilliant piece that ranks as a personal favorite xx song. Another, “Hot Like Fire,” was relegated to iTunes bonus and vinyl release.

The Aaliyah cover is an unlikely fit for The xx, but Rodaidh McDonald’s observation of how hip-hop and R&B influenced the group comes to explicit fruition in “Hot Like Fire.” The group took the template of the Aaliyah song and turned it into an intimate duet. Instead of the teasing sexuality of Aaliyah’s version, Romy Crofy and Oliver Sim share passionate vocals that are more cerebral in tone.

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