Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

The xx – On Hold

In which your editor wonders, not for the first time, why Hall & Oates are still a thing…


William John: On the last lead single from the xx, Romy Madley Croft sung about someone who moved through a room “like breathing was easy,” as if they were the only two people in it that mattered. That awareness of the power of cavernous space has been the defining characteristic of the band’s work to date. “On Hold,” complete with a lively Hall & Oates sample, is cluttered by juxtaposition, but the busyness of Jamie xx’s arrangement doesn’t detract from the singers’ dramatic intimacy. This isn’t so much the resuscitation of a band that previously “didn’t have a pulse” or whatever; it’s more like the awakening of a handful of geniuses to the presence of others at the party.

Alfred Soto: I give’em credit for fucking with their finely calibrated narcolepsy: the art of staring into space until space itself blurs. Mixed high and proud, Romy Croft and Oliver Sim come off like a Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt for the daze-y age while a bass burbles and a chopped vocal flaunts Jamie xx’s admiration for Drake and Kanye.

Thomas Inskeep: I’d listened to this a couple of times and liked it well enough before seeing the xx’s Saturday Night Live performance of “On Hold” last weekend. Their energy in that performance (an odd word to use regarding the xx, I know) really seemed to open the song up. There’s something about watching the chemistry between singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, watching them play guitar and bass (respectively) against each other while singing, while mastermind Jamie xx controls all sorts of keyboards, electronics, samples, and percussion behind them. Significantly, that includes Jamie’s triggering of pitch-shifted samples of Daryl Hall & John Oates’s 1981 classic “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” Much has already been made of said samples, so I’ll just add that they really add something to “On Hold,” not just catching the ear but grabbing and pulling it, throwing a super-unexpected element into the xx’s proceedings. (And pay attention to the specific lines incorporated, because they matter as lyrics.) As for the rest of the song, it’s got the xx’s semi-patented mix of subtle drum pads, Cocteaus-esque chiming guitar, and Croft and Sim’s flawless back-and-forth talk-singing. This is a single that gets meatier and deeper with subsequent listens, and may well be the best thing the xx have released since “Intro.” Delicious. 

Tim de Reuse: This would be a tasteful bare-bones synthpop morsel if it were just a little more brave with its sound design; the most gorgeous parts don’t appear until too late in the song and don’t stay quite as long as I’d like. And those stringy, chopped vocals from Hall & Oates that pass for a chorus are the exact opposite of what this track needed; they sound like the unpolished first pass of a second-rate mashup artist, stuck in an ugly clash with the smooth hum of the rest of the mix.

Ramzi Awn: There are plenty of good ideas in “On Hold,” but with young hearts come young lyrics. For a song about loss, it borders on the aloof.   

Will Adams: The xx never became the soundtrack of my teenage years like it did for many of my friends, and after Jamie’s reasonably good solo effort last year, I feel even less inclined to try this time. His chorus, with a julienned Hall & Oates sample over lonely percussive patter, is the most exciting portion of the song, and it’s been sandwiched between Romy and Oliver mumbling their way through a trite breakup narrative. 

Katherine St Asaph: An xx song with a sample from Hall & Goddamn Oates is the equivalent of the critical discourse throwing up on me; the soft-rock balladry is the equivalent of it doing so in the dentist’s office. Romy and Oliver have taken some voice lessons, at least. Jamie could use lessons in repertoire.

Scott Mildenhall: Until Sean Paul relents and tweets his endorsement for Mike + The Mechanics, there’ll be a chance this year could be the first since 2003 that the Christmas number one isn’t taken by The X Factor or a charity campaign. “On Hold” is thus perfectly timed. Like an inverse, non-homophobic, non-class tourist “Fairytale of New York”, The xx have released their Christmas single. It sounds like autumn fading into winter with spring inconceivable; Distant Daryl Hall is a plague of summers passed. That vocal filtering isn’t exactly a burst of originality, but none of this needs to be — it’s archetypal fun December misery.

Danilo Bortoli: The characters who used to occupy The xx’s songs used to be nocturnal beings — people ready to find love in silence and negative spaces. “On Hold” shifts the view: the video is our generation’s “1979.” The song, expectedly, borrows a lot from that melancholia yet fills it with euphoria. A penchant for the unsaid gives place to a prominent sample. Comfort gives place to teenage infatuation. Surprisingly, that does not really change the nature of their music: “On Hold” still hits that sweet spot between falling in and out of love. Their message is simply louder now. And a bit more optimistic.

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7 Responses to “The xx – On Hold”

  1. Alfred’s “Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt for the daze-y age” is too good.

  2. Katherine, “Hall & Oates are still a thing” because a lot of people still think they’re great, frankly.

  3. And I think they’re fucking embarrassing and the fact that the critical establishment forces me to take seriously the group responsible for “watch out boy, she’ll CHOOOO YEW UHHHP” is thoroughly irritating

  4. I had no idea they’d sampled H&O until I read these blurbs in the editing page.

  5. Hall & Goddam Oates are amazing. Judging them on Maneater is like saying the Beach Boys are that band what did Kokomo.

  6. here it comes

    the everpresent tide of men chastising me for having zero desire to listen to, let alone like, terrible yacht rock

  7. Agreed re “Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt for the daze-y age” and maybe on purpose? On re-listening to Loud Places I’m convinced the tinkly little riff in the chorus is Jamie consciously paying homage to Wrong/Tracey in My Room.