The xx – xx

Of the many artists who have entirely passed me by, The xx are probably the best known. Somehow I totally missed their initial successes, failed to notice their huge cult explosion, and entirely avoided their moments in the limelight. That wouldn’t be so unusual now, but ten years ago, when this album first came out, that was a bit strange. But it’s no reason to avoid them now.

Their debut xx opens with Intro, a meandering guitar piece which strolls gradually along, with ethereal male vocals and a strummed bass line. Then comes VCR, a number 132 single in 2010. Meandering is the key – there’s a somewhat jaunty glockenspiel line, but otherwise this is a slow, almost plodding track with a vocal about watching old videos.

Their debut single was Crystalised, which just missed out on the Top 100 in early 2009. It gradually builds into a sort of lo-fi, less electronic version of New Order, maybe with a bit of a bluesy feel thrown into the mix. It’s good, and easy to nod along to, but it’s also difficult to reconcile with The xx‘s huge acclaim. This was a Mercury Prize-winning album, and they were winning awards left, right, and centre. Why?

Perhaps the answer lies in Islands, their biggest hit – to date, actually – having hit number 34 and reaching silver certification in late 2009. Not particularly, unfortunately. If you wanted to be unkind, you would pick up on another gently strummed guitar line and the self same instrumentation as the last few tracks. That’s not really fair, as the vocal delivery is interesting, and there are some nice electronic drums, but can you honestly repeat any of the lyrics? Seems unlikely.

These are short tracks, though, and already we’re nearly half way through with Heart Skipped a Beat. The ethereal feel that we had at the start is back here, with some softer, higher sounds. This might be my favourite track so far, actually.

Some of the songs would make for interesting film soundtrack moments – Fantasy is a bit vague still, but there’s a lovely gentle feel to it, and the sort of bass part that makes you want to check your heart is still functioning as it should.

But something still doesn’t quite seem right – I wonder if it is the lyrics, after all. Shelter contains the couplet “Could I be, was I there? / It felt so crystal in the air.” What on earth is that supposed to mean? It’s atmospheric, yes, but surely that’s pretty lazy lyric writing, isn’t it? Or maybe The xx‘s lyrics aren’t intended to be scrutinised quite that closely – maybe the mood is the thing here after all?

But if that’s true, it would be nice to have some variety – this is a nice album, but it is pretty samey so far. Well, until Basic Space, anyway – the electronic backing is muted, but it’s beautifully glitchy. It’s even got a nice, catchy chorus too. This came along just in time, didn’t it?

Infinity keeps it going as well – it’s got some wonderful percussion, punctuating the vocals, and the sauntering guitar work is well placed too. These last couple of tracks almost make that Mercury Prize win worthwhile! Or maybe I’m just starting to get used to it, finally.

You do get the impression that The xx might be best enjoyed live, in a dark club, probably with some plant-based narcotics on hand. Listening to the album feels a bit like fundamentally missing the point. Night Time is a bit of a mess of beats and Peter Hook-like strumming, but it’s a nice mess, nonetheless. Closing track Stars is spacious and pleasant, although still perhaps seems a little forgettable for a closing track.

So xx is either a mixed bag, or takes a bit of getting used to, but it does end up in a nice place. Ten years on, it still has its indie charm, even if it does feel a bit wrong not to see them perform any of this live. One day, maybe.

You can still find xx at all major retailers, although possibly only as an import.

Preview – New Order + Liam Gillick

New Order have come up with some interesting projects in recent times, but this might be one of the oddest. It seems to all be available to watch online, if you search for it, and it’s worth giving it at least a quick look. It’s a live album, performed with an array of synth players embedded in the wall behind them. Here’s a performance of Vanishing Point, as a taster:

La Roux – La Roux

Right from the start of La Roux‘s eponymous debut, it’s pretty clear what’s going on – it opens with the huge hit In for the Kill, with Elly Jackson singing about an octave higher than she’s really comfortable with. It’s uncomfortable to listen to – this was early in their career, but you feel as though this is someone young, who hasn’t really worked out who they are yet, or what they want to do. She’s intentionally singing with the voice of a million pop songs, because that’s what she thinks she’s meant to do. At least, that’s what it sounds like.

The thing is, La Roux is actually a pretty good song, In for the Kill is a very good, catchy pop song, but that voice… it just doesn’t sound right – and with good reason. When Jackson worked with New Order on Music Complete, she proved conclusively that she’s a good singer. There’s little sign of that here.

There are hints, though – Tigerlily is an angry, perhaps intentionally Lily Allen-like vocal delivery. It’s insubstantial, like a lot of Lily Allen‘s discography, but it’s a good pop song. It even has a tribute to Thriller in the middle, although it doesn’t honestly work particularly well here – this is a lot less atmospheric.

Quicksand is next, and we’re back to the hoarse screechy vocal delivery again. It does wear a little less as you get used to it, actually – and the synth backing, although a little cheesy at times, is punchy and fun. Then the number one hit single Bulletproof – and by this stage, you should be thoroughly used to the vocal delivery. It’s another great pop song, even though it doesn’t really flow well from the preceding track. If the production weren’t quite so naff, and the vocals were an octave or so lower, this could be a great pop-rock crossover. As it is, it’s a good song, but it does seem to be lacking something.

It’s a decade now since La Roux graced the charts, and pretty much as long since La Roux graced the charts – follow-up Trouble in Paradise, released a telling five years later, performed well but only yielded one minor hit single. So La Roux is very much a product of its time.

For the first time, Colourless Colour does something more interesting than just pop. The chorus isn’t the strongest ever, but the synth pad work in the verse is gloriously retro. It is a worthwhile reminder, though, of just how interesting pop can be when enough work has been put into the production – all the tracks up to now just seem to have fallen a little flat, in retrospect.

The kazoo-like lead on final single I’m Not Your Toy is a nice illustration of this. It would work fine on its own, but amongst its neighbours, it feels like a kind of laughing irony. The song is strong though – there’s little to fault about the song writing on most of these tracks, actually. The pitch is a little off, as is the production, but the base song is good.

We’ve also run out of singles now – Cover My Eyes is next, and is a nice, very eighties-inspired track. The longest track on the album, it does seem to owe a lot to the pop of a couple of decades earlier, and given that Jackson was only born in 1988, that’s actually quite impressive. It may not be new, but it is at least interesting.

So it continues, really – As if By Magic is both fresh and dated, and really for the first time on this album, it seems to be comfortably in Jackson’s vocal range. It even has a fade at the end, which, as we’ve discussed before, is rare on modern pop songs. Fasicnation has what is probably the oddest vocal melody on the whole album, and is consequently possibly one of the hardest tracks to enjoy here. Honestly, it’s a bit of a mess, this one.

Reflections Are Protection is better, but the album is pretty much over by this point. You can see this working well as a song for a house party, perhaps late in the night, when everyone is feeling a bit worse for wear. Actually, that’s a fair analogy for this album – it’s a house party, where you have some fun, but something doesn’t quite seem right – and you just keep bumping into that loud person with the grating voice. You can’t help that uneasy feeling that you’re going to wake up in the morning and wonder whether the hangover was really worth it.

The last track is Armour Love, which is one of the better songs on here. It’s slower, with a jauntier rhythm and a clever melody. This could have been a great single, actually, with if the marketing strategy had been a little bolder. It’s certainly fair to say that La Roux are capable of writing and recording interesting songs. In amongst everything else.

Some editions also add the bonus track Growing Pains, which is another highlight actually, but the die is cast by this stage. La Roux is a worthy debut, and an interesting album. It’s easy to fault in many ways, but it has plenty going for it, and it obviously tapped into the moment – its chart performance speaks for itself. Most people probably won’t be listening to it now, but it’s worth at least having it in your awareness. Pop, when done well, can be truly great.

You can still find La Roux by La Roux on general release.

Record Companies – Mute Records

Closing this mini-series out is a quick look at Daniel Miller‘s Mute Records, which, since its launch in 1978, has become one of the most cult, collectible labels. Initially devised as an engine to release Miller’s own electronic act The Normal, it has grown to house a huge roster of artists from a broad range of genres.

Key artists include Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Moby, Goldfrapp, and more recently, New Order, but it has also housed some hugely influential underground artists, including Fad Gadget, Nitzer Ebb, and Laibach. The list could be endless. Many of those artists were lost when Mute was sold to EMI in 2002, and didn’t follow back when it regained its independence at the end of the decade, but the list of artists is still very strong.

Perhaps most notable in recent times is the now-legendary box set MUTE433, a compilation of different artists performing John Cage‘s 4’33”. Which is clearly brilliant, even if I don’t really want a copy (thanks all the same). By the time you read this, it might already be in the shops.

You can find out more about Mute by going to

Retro chart for stowaways – 16 Apr 2005

These were the top ten albums fourteen years ago this week!

  1. New Order – Waiting for the Sirens’ Call
  2. Moby – Hotel
  3. Basement Jaxx – The Singles
  4. Mylo – Destroy Rock & Roll
  5. Everything But The Girl – Adapt or Die – Ten Years of Remixes
  6. Client – City
  7. Daft Punk – Human After All
  8. Bent – Ariels
  9. Depeche Mode – Remixes 81-04
  10. Télépopmusik – Angel Milk

New Order – Technique

Thirty years ago this week, New Order released their fifth studio album, Technique. This was the album where they famously disappeared to Ibiza to record, and, intentionally or otherwise, returned with something that wasn’t entirely complete yet.

It opens with Fine Time, full of huge late 1980s bass and snare sounds. It must have already sounded a little outdated, actually – a lot of these are the sorts of sounds that were turning up on New Order‘s own remix 12″ singles a couple of years earlier, and the times were moving fast by the late 1980s. Of course, the previous album Brotherhood (1986) predated a lot of that, so maybe what we witness here is a band who knew this had been done already, and just wanted to enjoy themselves. The goat samples are, of course, a welcome addition.

But Technique is interesting in that regard – famously none of the first four New Order albums contained any singles, and so prior to this point, there was a clear division to the New Order you find on modern compilations versus the band who could be found on LP. Fine Time was the first single from this album, actually released in late 1988, and was one of their more successful releases, peaking at number 11.

All the Way is much closer to what I would now regard as classic New Order, although offhand I’m not sure how much material like this they had actually recorded prior to 1989, It’s less electronic, and more guitar-based, and offers Peter Hook a good chance to shine with his lively bass lines. Love Less is similar, with some of Bernard Sumner‘s typically awkward lyric writing, but a catchy chorus and some gentle rhythmic elements. For the first time on this album, I think you can understand what they’re trying to do here, although for a band as adventurous as New Order, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Then you get the second single Round & Round, which peaked at number 21 shortly after the release of the album. If you struggle as much as I do with New Order song titles, it might help if you think of this as the one that’s built around loads of orchestral hits. The single was remixed slightly, and frames the song a little better than the album version, but it’s definitely the best song of the album so far.

Side A closes with Guilty Partner, a catchy but somewhat directionless piece with a particularly huge bass part. With New Order, it’s rarely worth thinking too hard about what they were trying to do, best instead just to enjoy their songs for what they are – that guitar solo at the halfway point is beautiful, and that’s really all that matters here.

We get the singles out of the way with the original version of Run at the start of Side B. In its single form (Run 2) it’s a great song that underperformed disappointingly on its release, crashing out from number 49 on the charts. Based on the album version, its poor performance would be a little more understandable – the catchier moments and the unusually insightful lyrics are actually there, but the production is just a little dreary and flat.

Mr. Disco is interesting – a lot of the classic New Order elements are there, and again, it’s good to hear them exploring some of the ground that had been limited to 12″ singles previously. At the same time, there are elements that are absolutely awful – mainly the lyrics and vocal delivery (such as rhyming “letter” with “met you”) – but there are other things that don’t quite seem to fit together. It’s a mess, but it’s a nice enough mess.

Vanishing Point is next, and is probably the best track on here. For the first time, we get many of the traditional New Order elements and a great song at the same time. Ninety second introductions had long been typical of the band’s singles in the 1980s, and dreary, dark, and introspective lyrics were very traditional too. Why wasn’t this one of the singles? Even the production seems to have stepped things up a level. Pure brilliance.

But it’s with Dream Attack that they really shine. They had never used honky tonk piano as a lead line before, and surprisingly it fits extremely well. Peter Hook‘s unchanging rhythmic bass is complemented by a wonderfully punchy synth bass part, and again, the lyrics actually sound sincere. This is New Order at their best, without a doubt.

For all of its patchier moments, Technique is indisputably one of New Order‘s finest albums. By the time Republic came out four years later, they had decisively moved from their elegantly dreary and experimental roots to a commercially successful indie pop-rock crossover. So Technique shows a band in transition, and demonstrates all the conflict and brilliance that you might expect from that.

The double CD special edition of Technique is still widely available, but as always, keep an eye out for the versions with dodgy sound quality.