By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
It's no surprise that the press seized on a trio of co-ed Londoners called the xx last fall, whose name signs either their age or double kisses. The big white "X" on black that comprises their album cover (title: xx) is the sort of cult branding that evokes a mass of NIN T-shirts, and their goth-friendly haircuts would be happy to comply if only the group didn't pledge allegiance to Aaliyah and Ma$e first. What is surprising is that as far as the hype goes, everything else about the xx is tiny, compartmentalized, and contained. Expect an uncannily intimate show when they play Webster Hall on March 31.
On the phone from a European town she says she doesn't know the name of, Romy Madley Croft (mostly the lead singer, but prone to duets with bandmate Oliver Sim) likens the group to a "fine-toothed comb." She sounds genuinely puzzled about how to write songs while "living on the road" and nervously admits she's "still quite shy about singing in front of people in a room." Whoops.
The xx have been on tour for the entire seven-month duration of their public life, losing one keyboardist (Baria Qureshi) to "exhaustion" and recently canceling several dates in Europe due to the death of Croft's father. All of this tails not one but four singles (three with videos), a Rolodex worth of remixes, and top-10 placements on Rolling Stone's and Pitchfork's best of 2009 lists, not to mention the Voice's annual critics' poll.
Being in the public eye for less than a year only magnifies Croft's bewilderment. "I went out for a drink when I was in London briefly, and someone came up to me and said, 'Thank you.' I didn't really know what he meant, so he added, 'Oh, I really love your album—thank you for that.' It's kind of weird. I'm not in the mindset that I would get recognized."
The xx began as childhood friends in a South London area where Croft says the "isolation" was the biggest creative motivator (half-explaining the deluge of bleakly beautiful product by her high school's fellow alumni, Burial and Four Tet). But she also cites Stevie Nicks as a favorite songwriter, and Sim's older sister brought r&b into the house. Croft shrugs, "It doesn't seem weird to go from listening to the Cure to listening to Rihanna," making it feel silly to ask any further why her band covers Aaliyah or longs to do justice to Ma$e featuring Total.
Weaned on the Distillers as a teenager, Croft quickly figured out it was easier to write melodies one note at a time, like basslines rather than barre chords. The method stuck so well that her band was eventually encouraged by both their instincts and some early supporters to remove most of the unnecessary bits: extraneous countermelodies, chords, sometimes even drums. Much of xx finds Croft or Sim singing over no more than a reverberating guitar or a single, thick bass stab. But they don't use the sonic restraint as an excuse to slouch onstage—they refuse to loop any backing tracks, which means secret weapon Jamie Smith punches every single preprogrammed thump on the album with his fingers, making him the drummer by default. But the band isn't getting a big head about the correlation between their relative discipline and any kind of "maturity" for their young age. "I think it's just another thing to write about," Croft says tartly.
Despite their youth, though, the 20-year-old says she has already outgrown some of her work. "I can definitely look back at something like 'VCR,' which was written when I was 16, and think now I probably wouldn't write those lyrics."
How would they be different if she'd written them today?
"I think they'd probably be a bit darker."
The xx, March 31, Webster Hall,125 East 11th Street, websterhall.com
Spring Music Picks
It's safe to say that the alt-country winners of the last decade are now as far away from inspirational three-guitar forebears Lynyrd Skynyrd as Radiohead are from U2. For one thing, Skynyrd never ceded one of their loveliest tunes to a lady (bassist Shonna Tucker's "The Purgatory Line" is a killer). And they certainly never examined war toll like Patterson Hood's post-traumatic stress eval "That Man I Shot." The upcoming The Big To-Do promises their thickest-cranked rock in years—ideal time for a live outing, no? Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street, websterhall.com
Atoms for Peace
April 5 and 6
Radiohead fans weren't unkind to Yorke's bedroom project The Eraser, but I'd even place its alienated skitter up against the genius of Radiohead's last two "more organic" albums: The Björk-evoking "Atoms for Peace" is one of his spookiest, prettiest vocal performances ever. Perhaps this new live incarnation (also called Atoms for Peace)—featuring Flea, longtime sounding board Nigel Godrich, and Beck/R.E.M. fill-in Joey Waronker—will help convince others. Fans of the organic need not fret, either; I hear he's throwing "True Love Waits" and "Pyramid Song" in with the new goodies. Roseland Ballroom, 239 West 52nd Street, roselandballroom.com