Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The xx floats along in its own arty minimalist world

For a band that has spent the last year knocking the indie-rock cognoscenti back onto their fainting couches, you might expect the tidal wave of hype surrounding The xx to come with some seismic force behind it. Instead, the London trio, who graduated to the big stage at the Orpheum on Sunday night, arrived to lay waste not with a bang, but a whimper, albeit a stylish and mostly compelling one.
The band songs, like the coy “Crystalised,’’ were generally introduced (or, reluctantly surrendered) with a viscous, delay-effected riff from guitarist Romy Madley Croft . Jamie Smith fell in line next with a stuttering synth-pad drum loop, while Oliver Sim proffered a thrumming pulse on bass guitar. Sim and Croft alternated vocals, line by line, or came together in ghostly, buzzing harmony. Croft’s tone is breathy and standoffish, but warm, while Sim handles his confessional chores with a wry, rough edge.

On stage, as on record, the songs from the band’s Mercury Prize-winning self-titled debut were performed with all the enthusiasm of a photo blogger toggling between effects filters on a set of boring party photos. Melodies are just barely insinuated through repetition, and the prevailing mode is one of sparse deconstruction of post-punk contrivances. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it adds up to an extremely efficient aural aphrodisiac for the disaffected 20-somethings for whom The xx’s peculiar brand of monotony resonates. The winking, minimal “Basic Space’’ is one good example of flirtation-through-indifference that seems to be the band’s go-to move; the more you ignore the audience the closer they get, you might say. Holding back is one thing, but at times, as on the droning tone poem of “Fantasy,’’ an impartial observer might have felt the burden of filling in the musical cracks shift too far back into his own hands. At the other end of the spectrum, Croft’s lead vocal turn on “Teardrops’’ was a lesson in artful seduction. Love, or explicit emotion of any sort for that matter, isn’t charged with heat in The xx’s musical universe; instead it’s implied. You do the rest.

Pity that The xx’s crafty lighting technician hadn’t punched in by the time opening act Zola Jesus took to the stage; geysers of volcanic flame might have been a suitable effect. The Los Angeles-based performer Nika Roza Danilova moved heaven and earth with her arresting, powerhouse vocal incantations, whirling about the stage like a sorcerer conjuring tectonic shifts through demiurgic movements of body and voice. Her three-piece band of synth-manipulators churned out dark washes of noise on songs like the arresting goth-dirge “Sea Talk.’’ In the second support slot, Los Angeles’ impressive Warpaint alternated between shouted three-part vocals and softly whispered melodies over abruptly morphing sonic textures and tempos. Their songs were both playful and disdainful, edging sharp corners from punk careening, to interlocking layers of rhythmic complexity with the work of drummer Stella Mozgawa proving especially riveting.

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