Chained To The Past

As is patently clear to anyone who has half a brain and quarter of an ear to the ground, Putney’s finest heartbroken Chris Isaac/Burial mash-up tribute act The Xx are back, back, back with a new record, called “Coexist”. ‘Tis out on September the 10th, and already the Internet Hordes are out in force proclaiming that it sounds JUST LIKE THEIR LAST RECORD.

Well, of course it does, you pillocks. When you release a debut album, out of pretty much nowhere, which sounds pretty much unlike anything else out there, you’re going to have a problem when you release a second album, thanks to it, not unreasonably, sounding like your first record, because IT’S BY THE SAME BAND. I mean, no-one had a go at Oasis because “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory” sounded rather a lot like “Definitely Maybe”, did they? Well, ok, I did, but I didn’t have a blog then so just moaned to friends, family, colleagues, and the poor sods I was being employed by to do the music for, rather than the poor sods (eg you) reading this now.

Look, both Portished and Tindersticks – two bands whose sound was immediately striking and unique – went on to refine and deepen their sound pretty successfully for a couple more records before it all went wrong. Let’s give The Xx time to do the same.

Anyway, a new track, Chained. It sounds like something from their debut. What were you expecting, Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep? A salsa/Boredoms mashup? A selection of show tunes from 1920’s Belgrade?

MP3: Chained by The Xx
(Removed because The Xx – or their management – don’t seem to want to let people share music that they are already sharing themselves. Sheesh. It’s 2012. If you don’t want people to hear your music don’t post it on your website. Anyway, it’s Soundcloud from here on in, folks. Hope you enjoyed being able to hear a couple of taster tracks whilst you were on the Tube. Then again, maybe The Xx don’t understand that, being from….er….London. Arseholes.)

(Purchase link removed)

We’re New Here

If you’d said to me, a while ago, that grizzled old soul poet Gil Scott-Heron would cover a Bill “Smog” Callahan song on an album of covers, named after said Smogsong, I’d have likely assumed you were pulling my plonker. If you’d followed that up by saying that Jamie Whatsisface – the beats component of The Xx (as opposed to the echoey guitar bit or the looping bass bit) – would then do a remix of said covers album, I’d tell you do verily go and do one and stop wasting my time.

But lo, the music world of 2011 is a strange and wonderful place, and such a thing has come to pass. The song is “I’m New Here”, from 2005’s “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love”, a record that’s up there with Bill’s finest, even if “I’m New Here” does fit comfortably into the “decent album track but nothing outstanding” category. Gil grumbled all over his original cover in quite an endearing manner, giving the lines “Met a woman in a bar\Told her I was hard to get to know\And near impossible to forget” a whole new poignancy. And making them significantly less ominous than when Bill sings them, frankly.

And the remix adds a whole new layer of shimmering noise and the now obligatory Dubstep Speeded-Up Female Vocals. The effect is certainly interesting. Whether I’d want to listen to it more than a few times or not I’m not so sure about. Still, from time to time you need to have those cobwebs in your brain blown away, eh? And I have to say, from what I’ve heard of the record, it’s a damn sight better than James Blake.

If you’re curious about Bill “Smog” Callahan, see the article I wrote ages ago here. Gosh, I had loads more time back then. *sigh*

MP3: I’m New Here by Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX

MP3: I’m New Here by Smog

Buy We’re New Here (CD)

Buy Smog’s “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love”

Congratulations and Celebrations

The Mercury Prize has something of a chequered history. Widely sneered at by the cognoscenti1, winners over the years have ranged from the worthy (Elbow, PJ Harvey), the new and frankly astonishing (Dizzee Rascal), the soon-to-be-obscure (Roni Size) and the ludicrous (M People. Seriously? Klaxons? You jest, surely?).

The Xx have also, for some reason, been getting sneered at by the cognoscenti too. I can sort of understand a few of the criticisms. Yes, it’s just some herberts from Putney pissing about with a drum machine, bass and guitar, and being all lovelorn. “I could do that” they sneer. Well, why didn’t you then? Because like many great things, making such music is much harder than it seems. And few bands I’ve seen in the last few years have enraptured a live crowd quite as well as this lot did, which shows real and genuine talent.

So their success, despite critical fawnings and actual, proper commercial success, has been a little tainted. Thankfully, over a year after its release, the band were announced as the winners of the 2010 prize last night. So, young folk from Putney, congratulations. You deserve it. Lord only knows where the band will go from here. Having such a distinctive sound is frankly a bugger, as Portishead (1995 winners) will tell you – how do you expand on your sound to make things interesting without losing what made you special to begin with? Do you try and be like yourselves, only more so, concentrating your sound to an extent that you become almost unlistenable, like Portishead did? Or do you go the other way, like Dizzee Rascal, and become more poppy? Whilst you’ve got to love songs like “Bonkers”, it does lack that special WHAT THE FUCK IS HE DOING STOP THAT YOU’RE FREAKING ME OUT sound of Boy In Da Corner. Seriously, bits of that record still make me scared. I am 39.

Whichever way it goes, good luck to The Xx. Believe in yourselves and you’ll win the ultimate prize. /Californian Platitudes Off.

Oh, and two little personal notes. Firstly, to the Guardian, the BBC and everyone else who reported their success, please replace the stock photo of the band with my new version:

A Little Hint

And secondly, it’s nice to see a band I tip early on in their career go on to actual success2. I just wish some of the others – Bullets In Madison maybe, or Meursault, or Bright Spark Destroyer, or Paul Thomas Saunders, become even a tenth as successful. Please try some of these bands. It won’t hurt.

1 Yes, I did have to look up how to spell that. What am I, a fucking spelling bee?

2 I get a warm fuzzy feeling know that my blogging about them has made an infinitesimally small contribution to their success. Go, me!

MP3: Hot Like Fire by The Xx

Just buy XX, dammit.

Live Review – The Xx

The Xx caused something of a stir last year. Coming from nowhere (ok, Putney), they quickly became media darlings and their debut album nestled near the top of almost everyone’s best-of lists. But all’s not been rosy with the band; following the departure of keyboardist Baria Qureshi from exhaustion, they then went to cancel shows in Europe due to illness. But they’ve sold out two consecutive nights at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and the place was buzzing in anticipation. Would they live up to the hype?

Speaking of hype, let’s talk first about These New Puritans. My mother always told me that if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

After their set, the roadies came on and did their stuff. And then pulled a huge white sheet down over the front of the stage. As the lights dimmed, the reason became clear. Unseen, the band launched into “Intro”, and suddenly lights at the back of the stage lit the band’s shadows onto the sheet, in time with the music. One second, the drummer, the next, Romy Madley Croft on guitar, then Oliver Sim. The shadows overlapped one another, grew and shrunk, to hugely hypnotic effect. At the climax of the song, the sheet fell to the ground. I’ve not heard such a rapturous response to a band’s entrance for years.

This care and attention is at the heart of The Xx. Putting up a white sheet and playing behind it is easy. Anyone could do it, but no-one else does. And like the sheet trick, their music seems simple – just drums, bass, guitar, a little keyboard, two singers. It’s just R’n’B mixed with New Order and The Cure with some drowsy singing on top, isn’t it? But it’s not. The simple lines intertwine to become so much more than the sum of their parts that it’s nearly beyond belief.

Chatting to a mate on the way home from work before the gig, he wondered aloud what The Xx would be like live. “Quiet, I expect”, he said. That’s what I thought. But Jamie Smith seems quite willing and able to use his Sarf Lahndahn upbringing to infuse his backing drums and keyboards with a heavy dubstep sound This is a sound impossible to miss in London, even in nicer parts of the city like Putney1. You can’t even listen to Radio 42 without some pirate station bursting over the top whilst you’re trying to concentrate on In Our Time. And they were surprisingly loud; ok, not quite Mastodon or The Twilight Sad loud, but enough to make my trousers shake. Trouser-shaking is good.

Their set did, somewhat predictably, consisted of everything from “Xx” plus “Teardrops”, but we weren’t complaining. “Crystalised”, coming early on, displayed everything that’s good about The Xx; their twin voices meshing together, the bassline and the guitar dancing around one another, and with the drum machine being played live, a sense that these weren’t just pre-programmed beats and an exercise in going through the motions.

Moody Oranges

“Heart Skipped A Beat” was memorably brilliant and sent me back to my iPhone to listen afresh in the morning (always a sign of a good live band, that). “Teardrops” was introduced with “We played this last night for the first time in ages, so sorry if it goes wrong”. It didn’t, with the two-step reinvention showing lesser bands how to do this cover version lark properly (looking in your direction, Florence and the Overhyped Machine). “Basic Space”, my personal favourite, almost got me tearducts going. Almost, but not quite – what kind of a wuss do you take me for?

It was an evening of stepping into someone else’s world. A nighttime, teenage world, of doubts and heartbreak and lust and that wooziness of not knowing or understanding what was happening in your outer and inner life. You can just tell how this music was created by close friends, growing up together, creating a feeling of seeing into their little gang, eavesdropping on those nights in one or another’s bedroom, painstakingly crafting these little nuggets of beauty with the magpie instinct natural to a generation growing up with all the music in the world just a click away.

They really know what they are doing, this lot. In some ways, they remind me of The White Stripes, with their singleminded purity of sound and image. I wonder where they will go next; maybe they’ll be like Tindersticks and make a second album that’s just like the first one, only more so. If they can harness their enviable talents and push on to make another great record, we could be talking about them in hushed tones in years to come. Their sound has already developed from last year, with a much heavier backline, and stronger singing voices, so I look forward to whatever they come out with next.

Catch them on tour in the UK and at SXSW in the US later this month. Do it now, before they either become huge, or disappear.

1 Yes, I know they went to the Elliott School, bang in the middle of a large council estate, but it’s hardly Brixton or Tower Hamlets, is it?

2 The BBC radio station, rather than the band, obviously.

MP3: Crystalised by The Xx (Keljet Remix)

MP3: Teardrops by The Xx

Buy “XX” (CD/MP3)

Albums of 2009

After many months of deliberation here at L&L Towers (ok, it’s just me sitting there looking out of the window trying to remember what on earth I’d done all year), I’ve put together my top albums of the year. Like the Albums of the Decade (starting here), the idea was to only choose albums which I happily listen to all the way through, and had listened to a whole bunch of times. This time, rather than the album art, I’ve gone for YouTube videos. Enjoy!

The Top 5, not in any kind of order, except the first one.

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

Horrifyingly predictable for anyone who’s spent any time reading this blog. Whilst it’s not quite up there with Yellow House, still more detailed, more melodic, more emotional and more surprising than pretty much anything else that came out this year. Returning to it after a few weeks absence has got me playing “All We Ask” many times a day. A thing of sheer, dark beauty which slowly unravels itself into your brain, like some odd robotic monster.

(Is this the oddest video of the year, or what?)

MP3: Cheerleader (Live) by Grizzly Bear

Buy “Veckatimest: Special Edition” (CD)

The Xx – Xx

Came out of nowhere, made by teenagers, and wonderfully quiet. The bastard child of Low and Burial. Talked about at some length here.

MP3: Crystalised by The Xx

Buy “XX” (CD/MP3)

Metric – Fantasies

Many people found this too shiny and strident. For me, it was the soundtrack of the first part of the year – deep in job-hunting mode, wandering around the City in jeans listening to Emily Haines’s metallic majestic marvel. A proper album too; well-paced, with a proper start and even more proper fists-pumping-in-the-air finale.

MP3 – Sick Muse by Metric

Buy “Fantasies” (CD/MP3)

Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue

Again, came out of nowhere, and picked it up as a recommendation from another blog (the marvellous Fat Roland). Whilst other people have mixed folk and electronica (“Folktronica”, one of the worst genre names in history), to my mind Bibio have done it the best so far. For whatever reason, I never posted anything about this before, but it’s been happily playing away in my kitchen and in the car many times this year.

MP3: Lovers’ Carvings by Bibio

Buy “Ambivalence Avenue” (CD/MP3)

Mew – No More Stories….

Also horribly predictable. This album didn’t really make much sense to me until I saw them live, then it all started to click and fit together properly – ironic, given the complexity of their music. If you like your music a touch more unusual than the norm, but don’t feel warmed by the “Look at us, we’re clever, like”-isms of Animal Collective et al, this could be for you.

(Actual music starts about 2:20)

MP3: Introducing Palace Players by Mew

Buy “No More Stories” (CD)

Not quite the best, but still good

I couldn’t do an end-of-year list without mentioning Bill Callahan, Jason Lytle or Kingsbury Manx. All had albums out this year, and all had some highlights that were amongst their best songs, but the albums as a whole don’t quite make the top list. Still worth it though.

And Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is good too, but the chirpy popness doesn’t quite last the whole album, causing me to lose interest about half-way through.

Albums I need to listen to more, that would probably have made the list if only I had some more time to listen to them properly

Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport

Jim O’Rourke – The Visitor

Mark Eitzel – Klamath

Mastodon – Crack The Skye

I’ve listened to these albums a few times and they are starting to settle in nicely, but not enough for me to hand-on-heart call them albums of the year. Maybe they will appear on my list of albums I have loved in 2010 that were actually released in 2009 but I didn’t hear them then.

Albums I have loved in 2009 that were actually released in 2008 but I didn’t hear them then.

Frightened Rabbit – Midnight Organ Fight

This’d be up in the top 5 above if they’d released this in 2009. A great record by Grumpy Scots, and I suspect they’ve got more to come in 2010.

MP3: I Feel Better by Frightened Rabbit

Buy “Midnight Organ Fight” (CD/MP3)

Wye Oak – If Children…

When I first started this blog, in the depths of January, I rooted around a bunch of sites looking for some new music. And I stumbled across Wye Oak, and after listening to a selection of tunes far too many times, I went out and spent a bit of my redundancy money on the album. Very fine it is too.

MP3: Warning by Wye Oak

Buy “If Children” (CD)

Albums by bands I love that I really should get round to listening to at some point

Twilight Sad – Forget The Night Ahead

Flaming Lips – Embryonic

Yes, I know. Love both these bands but there just isn’t the time, you know?

The “People Tell Me I Should Love These Albums But I Just Don’t Get It” Award (sponsored by Kissing In Kansas)


Fever Ray – Fever Ray

Animal Collective – Merriwether Post Pavillion

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

And the winner is Animal Collective. People keep telling me to give it time, but as I’ve not even listened to the Twilight Sad or Flaming Lips yet, that’s pushing it. But you know, 2010 and all that.

(I still don’t get it, but have a listen and see what you think)

MP3: My Girls by Animal Collective

Buy “Merriweather Post Pavilion” (CD/MP3)

So that’s me albums done. Join me in a few days for the tracks. Some blinders in there, you know…

Review – The Xx

Kids today, eh? Dressing up in black, being all miserable, recording in dank studios underneath railway arches, wasn’t like that in my day. Oh hold on, yes it bloody was. Maybe that’s why, when I first heard The Xx, I got one of those weird chills. The fact that they were half my age and lived round the corner from me made it doubly weird.

Because, unlike pretty much everyone else making music today on either side of the Atlantic, The Xx like space. Lots and lots of it. I haven’t heard a band make so much from silence since the glory days of Low (and before them, the gaps between the pummelling method of Swans). There’s gaps between the mordant drums and the guitar stabs that you could safely park a truck in. The delay settings on the guitarist’s pedals are set to “Yeah, repeat what I’ve played in about half an hour”. No Edge-style 96ms delay for this lot, I can tell you1.

"You Want What On The Cover?"

But what gives me the chills the most is that this record sounds totally familiar, picking up influences from everyone from Young Marble Giants to New Order through to urban music like Grime and Dubstep, and sounds utterly, utterly unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.

“Infinity” sounds like Chris Isaak2 got kidnapped by Burial and started getting Stockholm Syndrome. “Heart Skipped A Beat” features a doleful Peter Hook style bassline, like something from “Unknown Pleasures” or “Power, Corruption and Lies”. Other parts sound like some weird pirate radio staffed entirely by lonesome indie kids with an R&B fascination.

The lyrics, as you’d expect from a bunch of folk just out of their teens, are concerned with love. And not just any love, oh no – the desperate yearning of youth, all unspoken desire and thwarted emotions and the sheer heartache of being horribly, wonderfully in love. It takes me back to those days, long ago3 when a single word from the object of your desire could turn you into a quivering wreck. When you spent the whole day waiting for the phone to ring, or the whole night waiting for the touch of her hand to make everything ok. When every single cell of your body felt nothing other than the pangs of yearning. The whole record is shot through with the fug of pheromones. Kids, eh?

In case I’m not making this absolutely clear, the album is great. For a band to come out with something as different, as shot through with that pure teenage combination of total confidence and heart-stopping loneliness as you can imagine, on their first attempt, is stunning. I only hope that the success of this album doesn’t go to their heads. Maybe I’ll pop down the road and lock them in their studio so they can’t get out and hear all the nice things people are saying about them. Success will only cheer them up, and that just won’t do.

One more thing. What is it about the Elliott School in Putney that’s produced some of the most forward-looking music in Britain today? Utterly bizarre. Bless the English Comprehensive system and its lackadaisical attitude towards education.

1 Sorry, guitar geek talk. Carry on.

2 Speaking of which, quite a few reviews have pointed out the similarity, and generally done it in a negative way. All I can say is, get over yourselves – “Wicked Game” is a marvellous song.

3 So very, very long ago. Sniff.

MP3: Heart Skipped A Beat by The Xx

MP3: Do You Mind by The Xx

Buy “XX” (CD/MP3)

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