More Album Reviews

The XX – xx
Rough Trade

This week we are going to explore my musical problems. I am a member of eMusic, an online digital web music browser. A few weeks ago they caught me with an offer to reactivate my account (again!) with 50 free downloads or some such offer. Naturally it wasn’t a hard decision to make. For $11.99 I get my 30 downloads, then I get 50 more free. That’s a lot of music for a really low price. During my shopping experience they kept shoving this record by some band called The XX in my face. So I caved and previewed the album. That was all I needed.

The XX make me incredibly self loathing. Why you ask dear reader? Because they are four twenty year old kids from South West London who have made one of the most stunning debut albums for a new band in many many years. I have been addicted to this music since I purchased it. So much so that during a recent record shopping excursion I had to buy it on Vinyl when I saw it. I love vinyl, it sounds AMAZING. but my life does not allow for a lot of vinyl listening opportunities. So that shows you my dedication to this fiendish habit of mine.

This album is a delicate journey into pop minimalism. What is so striking about The XX (the band) and The xx (the album) is that the band looks like a bunch of hipsters from several divergent musical genres and yet some how mesh together in this amalgamation of experimental music. And the use of the word experimental is not to suggest some type of deconstruction of form or the distortion of sound into collage, but a true experiment into how music can be made. The songs of The xx are hollow and haunting. And though they do not posses any huge blasts of guitar and drums, or any kind of symphonic hits or trashy beats, it’s no less engaging music. It’s musical fucking heroin.

The basic set up for the band includes two guitar players, a bass player, a kid who has a drum machine, and shared vocals. One of the guitarists spends a lot of time on the keyboards too. But these instruments are used sparingly. Through out the album, not one song has even one instrument playing through the entire song. Even during their most dense track “Crystallized” they manage to subtract at times. But the open space isn’t so much empty as it is stark. The focus any minute on a vocal melody, a thudding bass line, or a whispered longing lyric in intense. You can’t look away, even if you want to.

Since this record hit my ears, I’ve had a very hard time listening to a lot of guitar bands. Since The XX draw from so many different sources it seems, they make their predecessors look arcane. There is a less is more approach going on here, but not in your typical three chord punk rock song or folky acoustic guitar music. There is a bare exposure laid out across their entire album. The xx is a chilling debut. A classic English band straight out of the gate. If they can keep it up they will sit along side the likes of Blur, My Bloody Valentine and Joy Division. That’s no small feat for music that is so barren.

The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead
Fat Cat Records

What is it about Scottish bands that makes them so engaging? For me I think it is the drunken haze that they exist through. I can’t really say that’s a good stereotype or rule in which to hold any of them up to. It’s completely unfair. Just because it made the great Glasgow rockers Arab Strap the intense juggernaut they were, doesn’t mean that Mogwai or The Twilight Sad are a bunch of drunken buffoons putting on their best Jim Morrison impersonations. In fact the sonic similarities between Mogwai and their suburban friends in The Twilight Sad make you wonder what the hell is going on up in Glasgow because this shit is amazing.

What The Twilight Sad does to great effect is sound unabashedly mournful. James Graham is a front man on arena rock type levels. There is nothing over powering about his voice, he uses it to great effect. The building, budding rise of “The Room” is a fine moment. A song rooted on the growing intensity of the drummers pounding appendages, Graham sings the song upward from a quiet bedroom demo to a musically crushing rock fest.

This is found music for me. I relate to it’s similarities with Mogwai and Mogwai friends Envy. In fact I would put this band somewhere between the two. Though surely they aren’t as over powering as their Japanese counterparts, they certainly understand the effect of and how to apply electricity to music. It’s powerful without just being overpowering in volume. This is such a key to rock music. Steady as it comes, it’s nearly unhinged in places, and gets mad with piercing guitar sounds, but it’s always in the right places.

Volcano Choir – Unmap

Sometimes the music I like surprises me and that was the case when I perused the Volcano Choir’s debut album Unmap. The first fiddly notes on the guitar of “Husks and Shells” reminded me of the earliest works of Tim Kinsella of Joan of Arc. When the off kilter ohh’s and ahh’s come in, I was totally taken back to listening to How Memory Works while sitting on the shore of the pond circa George Mason University 1998. Shit was weird and wild. For me there is no doubt that music was pulsing through the arteries of this project. But I was pretty impressed. Tim Kinsella hasn’t done Time Kinsella as good as Volcano Choir.

I was shocked when I found out this was made up of one of the dudes from Bon Iver. I couldn’t get into that band at all, and yet this collaboration with Collection of Colonies of Bees is something special and spectacular. In fact it is interesting to listen to something so influenced by music that proceeded it by ten years. Unmap totally captures a moment in time. It’s quirky, layered and loose music, sometimes featuring not that much and sometimes featuring a chorus of improvised sounds. Justin Vernon’s almost unintelligible but beautiful falsetto vocals seem so well trained for this music. It’s a rare occasion when you get that type of vocal timbre to really work, but Vernon does it well.

Music is a funny thing. In the middle of rocking out with Raekwon’s thudding hip hop or bouncing around to Shang-A-Lang’s garage created pop punk, I still find time to travel through experimental, art rock. I have problems, deep rooted problems. I probably need a three month detox program. But I doubt even sobriety could keep me away for long.

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