Monday, August 24th, 2009

The xx – Basic Space

London kids get the internet talking…


Alex Macpherson: It’s rare to hear any band with such incredible command over their singular aesthetic, much less one as young as The xx. Taking Debussy’s maxim that “music is the space between the notes” as a starting point, they conjure oceans of feeling from unwaveringly still, spare arrangements. Sighing vocals and carefully placed notes are suspended in mid-air, evoking summer nights when moods hang heavy. But “Basic Space” is the sole cut on their xx album which feels negligible, largely because the band inexplicably eschew their usual swooning drift in favour of something more halting and earthbound.

Spencer Ackerman: Spare, haunting, nervy and beautifully sung. I’d give The XX money just for their reliance on negative sonic space. It seems like an insult to call this the descendant of the early-mid 00s overreliance on disco punk, and this isn’t that, but it’s angular and sexy and a bit sinister, so: close enough. Really wonderful.

Anthony Easton: Succeeds because of how quiet it is, how intimate it is; that it understands the grammar of disco and can use it for things other than party records means I want to hear more.

Martin Skidmore: I’ve played it three times now, and it seems determined to stay as background music to be ignored – it’s as diffident a record as I have ever heard, to the point of timidity, and it won’t sink into me at all. I don’t dislike it, but it is rather like someone whispering the distance.

Michaelangelo Matos: The guy is just about the biggest mushmouth I’ve ever heard, yet his indolence fits the arrangement perfectly. It’s wiry and loose at the same time, so it’s fairly unique. But unique by itself isn’t enough — not quite.

Matt Cibula: I have renamed this song “Don’t You Want Me Baby (Probably Not, I Don’t Know, I’m So Confused, That’s Why I Sound So Sad)” in my mind.

Martin Kavka: The first time I heard the awful harmonies — they’re really horrible — I wanted to give this a 1. Then I remembered that the harmonies in Electronic’s “Getting Away With It” are also horrible. That song is amazing; why not give this a second chance? After sixteen more chances, “Basic Space” is equally as transporting, although it’s a far more indolent song. Glacial, actually. (Does anyone in this band ever move? How do they get groceries?) Absolutely major.

Chuck Eddy: Doesn’t even sound especially spacious to me. Or basic, for that matter. And both singers sound slightly less exciting than listening to dust motes accumulate on my keyboard.

Erika Villani: Apparently having two lead vocalists is this band’s thing, but they could really do without the dude and his halting Lykke Li impression. Of course, then they would have nothing more than a charismatic, whispery, soul-tinged female singer layered over some smooth, thrummy electronics and a tripping beat, and we would have no way to tell them apart from Zero 7 featuring Sia.

Jordan Sargent: Carefully and perfectly prepared, like a meal from a five-star chef who knows how to properly season a dish. The hooks, though not overpowering or thunderous, crop up at the same rate as they do in the best work by someone like The-Dream (specifically his work on the Electrik Red album) and with the same sense of ruthless professionalism. “Basic Space” is minimalism so generous that it feels maximalist.

Tom Ewing: Precious, fragile, atmospheric, controlled — also somewhat half-formed on this track at least, but there’s enough here to suggest that if they had material as magnetic as the production they might be something special.

Additional Scores

Ian Mathers: [6]
Anthony Miccio: [6]

17 Responses to “The xx – Basic Space”

  1. Found it slightly frustrating that “Basic Space” is the single, because ever since I finally got round to discovering them a few weeks ago I haven’t been able to stop going on about how incredible they are. “Crystalised” and “Infinity” are the standout cuts, but there’s nothing else on xx that I wouldn’t give 9 or 10, and it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. Plus, they’re fucking great live, the intensity magnified if anything. Plus, they cover some of my favourite songs ever – Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire”, Womack & Womack’s “Teardrops”, Paleface & Kyla’s “Do You Mind” – and not only get away with them, but triumph.

  2. Damn it, seven people gave this a [6], not six[x]. Perfection in numbers is, as ever, elusive.

  3. Finally tracked down this album today and have given it a spin or two. The aesthetic is fairly uniform, but for all that, it’s an interesting one. The push towards total minimalism musically does the same thing for me as Cassie’s vocal minimalism. The further and further it approaches total stillness, the more and more entranced I am, pulled into this black hole of charisma and repetition. Trance-inducing almost.

    Lex is right that Basic Space is the one track that doesn’t pull this trick…a bit more momentum and groove to it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. It might do better as a one-off single that doesn’t interrupt the album’s flow, mind you.

    V. good. Glad yr 9s and 10s forced me to check it out.

  4. The harmonies in “Getting Away With It” are NOT horrible.

  5. Will have to check out their other tracks – I got stuck for something to say with this one because that clicky noise kept putting me off, but at least they’re trying something a bit different.

  6. They’re certainly not in tune, are they, Alfred? It took me quite some time to appreciate, say, 0:51-0:55 of the extended mix.

  7. Man, I just listened to this again, and I still don’t understand where people are hearing disco or r&b here. It just sounds like even more lethargic than usual electronic indie to me — and I say that as somebody who’s been a vocal supporter of spacey, minimalist dance music for going on three decades now. Really surprised that Lex likes this band so much, too, given what I take to be his usual violent aversion to vocals this detached and lifeless. Anyway, I totally stand by my grade. (Though I’ve admittedly never fully gotten Aaliyah or Cassie or The-Dream or Young Marble Giants, either — none of whom this song especially sounds like to me, but others have mentioned them, so it’s possible I’m missing something, or they’re just out of my league. Surprised that nobody has named My Bloody Valentine — not because these people especially sound like them, either; the cringe-and-boredom factor for me just strikes me as similar, somehow.)

  8. It’s also possible, as folks have suggested above, that I might like other XX tracks more; may check those out eventually, but there are a dozen or two singles that hit the country chart in recent weeks that seem way more promising that I plan to get to first. Actually curious what Frank Kogan — who likes Cassie and The-Dream a lot, but generally hates this kind of non-singing at least as much as I do — would think about this group. (Also curious whether they ever drink Dos Equis in honor of their name, but I kind of doubt it.)

  9. Also, fwiw, unlike some people around here, I don’t toss out “1”s to just anybody — This is only my third or fourth, in three months and a week grading songs, and I came into this one with no preconceptions whatsoever about the group. (Had never even heard of them before, though after I gave out my grade I skimmed an ILM thread, which is where I noticed the intriguing Young Marble Giants comparison.) I think this is a really, really shitty record — not quite “Wetter (Calling You Daddy)” by Twista featuring Erika Shevon shitty (that’ll be my first “0”, if it ever comes up), but close.

  10. There’s a thin line but a big difference between “lifelessness” and “stillness”, and The xx fall on the right side of it for me. I think it’s incredibly emotional music, not detached at all, and I hear total commitment to their aesthetic rather than the half-assedness which often pisses me off; but – like Cassie and, at times, Aaliyah, the energy is mostly directed inwards – IIRC, Chuck, you’ve never been a fan of glacial vocals? (Glacial as in disguising deeper feelings, rather than Miss Kittin-style glacial fashionista posing, which is also classic but a different thing.)

    The R&B comparisons make no sense if you read them before hearing The xx, but make total sense in retrospect: they tap into the spirit of (especially) Aaliyah’s One In A Million, rather than its sound per se. Great lyrics, too, once you notice them underneath the gorgeous sound: from “Shelter”, we have “And I’ll cross oceans / Like never before / So you can feel the way I feel it too / I’ll mirror images back at you / So you can see the way I feel it too.”

    I think I underrated “Basic Space” here: definitely not feeling it as much as anything else on the album, but once you get past the halting vocal section it’s still pretty beautiful and dreamy.

  11. Well, I like some glacial metal, I think. Maybe I just think of glaciers as a lot heavier than this music here. (Don’t detect any “deeper feelings,” either, but those sorta things are always in the ear for the behearer anyway, obviously.)

    And I still like GnR’s “One In A Million” more than Aaliyah’s.

  12. I’m more surprised that you’d give that Twista song a “0”! I mean, it’s not very good, maybe a 3-4, but it doesn’t strike me as anything particularly awful for what it is, just mediocre. He makes the claim that “make it rain” might (also) have something to do with ejaculation more, uh, forceful, though.

    My second zero is coming up, though. Grrrrrrrr….

  13. He makes the claim that “make it rain” might (also) have something to do with ejaculation more, uh, forceful

    Right. With a woman PRETENDING TO BE HIS DAUGHTER. The music might not be much worse than mediocre on its own, but that totally crosses the barf line, in my book — 11-year-old girls have to hear this crap on the radio, for Christ’s sake.

  14. Would “papi” make a difference? Just ‘cuz Britney did that on her last album (that was a 3-ranger, too). (For the record, I’m not saying that this song isn’t totally gross. Just asking since it probably won’t come up.)

    For reference, the Twista, the Twista:

    Was listening to Ying Yang twins U.S.A. the other day, and at “Whisper” I almost chuckled at how much controversy it kicked up at the time. And then the next couple tracks consecutively raised the stakes, esp. “Pull My Hair” (bleeeeah) — all coming after an awful moralistic tune about how depressing it is that women become strippers and thus are DOOMED but hey we’ll watch ’em anyway — and I did get the barf feeling. Didn’t help to have the faux documentary snippets of women telling men what they REALLY like heh heh heh heh.

  15. Just realized that the chick has the same throaty whisper as Rachael Yamagata. More reasons to love this.

  16. Actually curious what Frank Kogan — who likes Cassie and The-Dream a lot, but generally hates this kind of non-singing at least as much as I do — would think about this group.

    Yup, I hate this non-singing as much as Chuck does, and I sure wouldn’t compare the singing here to Cassie in a million years. To do stillness you need ace timing, which she has and which these stumblebums don’t, especially the guy. But I’d actually be somewhere between 4 and 6 on this, ’cause the singing just isn’t that important to it. The timing is in the bass and guitar.

  17. Scott Seward on ILM:

    the song is “basic space”. pretty slight. male/female vox. and by slight i don’t mean spare. just not a lot here. music for delicate people who don’t want to many “notes” or “sounds” in their music? or music in their music? maybe good for models who are watching their weight. not a lot of calories or nourishment here either.