The sinuous movements, like their hushed, intimate songs, suggest both seduction and confrontation.
On Friday night at New York’s historic Forest Hills Stadium, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim — vocalists/guitarists of The xx — traced steps toward and away from each other, as if in a looped recording of a lovers’ quarrel and reconciliation.
The British group’s 2009 debut, xx, caught the music world (and the band itself) unawares, garnering UK’s top music honor, the Mercury Prize. The spare sonics were born of necessity. Madley Croft and Sim — who play guitar and bass, respectively — along with producer and beat-maker Jamie Smith (Jamie xx), were childhood friends who explored their craft at night in their bedrooms, playing quietly to avoid waking their families. The result — quietly insistent synths, R&B bass patterns, and the push-and-pull between the two vocalists — recalls elements as diverse as Philip Glass and New Order, Daughter and James Blake.
The xx’s eponymous debut traces our innermost thoughts — fragile, yet not preciously so. Take “Crystallised,” for instance. The lyrics echo the movements of Madley Croft and Sim, prowling closer before retreating to their respective sides of the stage: You don’t move slow, taking steps in my direction … the sound resounds, echo … does it lessen your affection?
The band’s sophomore album, Coexist, continued their exploration of a sparse, yet entrancing aesthetic, with Smith creating rhythms and textures that translate as well in late-night solitary listening sessions as in dance clubs with pulsing strobes.
For a group known for hauntingly inward-facing songs, The xx’s new album, I See You, seems to reference the introvert’s penchant for watching while remaining unseen, and conversely, the arrival of a more open sonic landscape. The first track, “Dangerous,” features bold bursts of electronic horns, while “Say Something Loving” — the opening song on Friday night — couples a soaring melodic opening with an insistent ostinato for a song that reaches outward.
Smith’s playful palette is more foregrounded this time around, two years after his solo album, In Colour (Friday’s main set closed with “Loud Places”). He wields synthesizers and samples to build pop, disco, and R&B flairs — “On Hold” weaves in a sample of Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).”
The stage setup featured tall mirrored panes that rotated in sync with shifts in the songs, sometimes reflecting images of the artists and sometimes refracting light out into the audience — an apt metaphor for the tensions at play throughout The xx’s body of work.
Sim’s takes woozy balletic steps across the stage, tracing arcs through the air with his bass while Madley Croft gazes askance through jet-black hair, cut with a stark geometry not dissimilar to the precision with which Smith taps out rhythms.
Halfway through the set, the stage lights dimmed as Madley Croft addressed the crowd. “New York is special to us,” she said. “This next song, I played for the first time in this city — to forty people. And to play it now for all of you” — she paused as thousands on the field and in the stands applauded — “I wish I could tell you how beautiful you are, New York.” A single beam of light came on, framing her amidst the vast darkness as she queried: If I scream at the top of my lungs, will you hear what I don’t say? — the opening lines of the achingly powerful “Performance.”
I See You sees The xx bigger and bolder than ever, without losing any of their inviting vulnerability.
The xx is on tour now with labelmate Sampha, who is known for his work with Drake, Kanye West, and Solange. Sampha’s debut, Process, is a finely crafted electronic/R&B vision, autobiographical yet universal in narrative.
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