Even the names are similar! And by that I mean to compare this release from British chill-popsters The xx to that of mysterious Swedish caribbean-popsmiths jj. No, I'm not just basing their similarity on something as simple as ABC (literally) or on their odd, shared love of lowercase letters. In fact, there's actually quite a few reasons why The xx's xx and jj's nº2 should be mentioned in the same breath.
For one, they've both released two of the best debut records of the year, mining a specific sound (jj: tropical sunshine music following in the footsteps of their label-heads The Tough Alliance; The xx: shivering, often sparse electro-pop more in the vein of The Knife) and spinning consistently addictive, bite-sized tracks (only one cut here stretches past the five minute mark) that exemplify said sound and never tire it out. This is in part because both records are so short; they each skirt the 30 minute mark, which is perfect because neither ever overstays its welcome.
And though both albums sound very different from each other save a few cursory similarities (the earnest boy/girl vocal dynamics, the single instrumental piece inclusion, and their totally welcome approach to recording that treats a release as something to be played as a whole rather than a singles comp), there's one more reason to pair the two: Where as jj's nº2 was the perfect record for its moment (an album full of bright, bursting summertime anthems released at the very beginning of July, when summer's end was nowhere in sight), so too have The xx done with their self-titled debut. (An appropriately timed come-down for those ready for a nighttime record as daytime means schooldays means more of a drag.) See, I told you the comparison was about more than those band names.
The good news: As much as I love that jj record (a worthy successor to The Tough Alliance's own watershed set of ear-worms, A New Chance), The xx's debut might be even better. Possibly this is because I'm in less of a summer mood these days or simply because there's more material here (over ten minutes more) than on jj's release. Either way, I find myself drawn to this album over just about anything new out there for eager ears.
Why? Oh, let me count the ways: the tuneful bliss and wistful romanticism of "Islands" ("I am yours now," the boy and girl vocalists sing in unison); the thump-pause-thump of bass pulses illustrating the titular promise of "Heart Skipped A Beat"; the smooth, early-Feist-esque torch song "Shelter" (which really showcases female singer Romy Madley Croft's vulnerable and aching vocal – which also, appropriately, sounds an awful lot like one of the mysterious vocalists in the jj collective); and the fierce smack and dissonant guitar chords accompanying the memorable refrain of "I can give it up / to someone else's touch" on perhaps the record's best track (if you were to ask at this moment), "Infinity."
It's all good though, with only one weak point (the somewhat non-descrpt "VCR," which seems a lesser version of many other songs here), just as jj has the kind-of-annoying and sonically over-crowded "My Love" dragging down its debut – but only slightly. You could also make a case for the drifty, directionless "Fantasy" (at the dead center of this record) being a misstep, but it's so brief (two and half minutes) and serves to break up the album into two distinct halves, a stride toward structural coherence I can't fault.
The bad news: Very little, but I'm sure there are those out there that will find this stuff uninspired or even boring. To those I say: look closer. The strength of this set is in the subtleties. Whereas jj work hard to whip up a dense cacophony of chatter and multi-layered percussion, it's the lack of noise and the quietude of xx that proves most telling in the band's music. The melodica of nº2 incites parties and conga-lines and hip shaking, ushering you to the dance floor; xx may usher you to the couch, for some quiet introspection. At the very least, any partying inspired will likely be done away from sunlight, and people won't be shaking much of anything. Which is no diss; we need those records as much as we need the ones that get us on the floor making a fool of ourselves.
But in the waning days of summer, as the weather gets colder and responsibilities begin to seem a lot more oppressive than they did a month of so ago, we all need to chill a bit. And, above all – more so than the seasonal implications, the various applications and even my central, strained comparison – it's the strength of this record that makes it one of the year's best. (Last time, I promise) Like nº2, The xx's debut is impeccably structured, and just as jj have the campfire balladry of "Me & Dean" to close out their set, this record has its "Stars" (further acknowledgement of nocturnal leanings), one of the album's most subdued moments, but no less sparkling and gorgeous – not to mention youthful, innocent – than anything else here. Because any record, be it built for summer or fall, needs a comedown. More importantly: this one's built to last.