On Fridays, Artsweek takes a look at new releases from artists that are keeping the music world fresh.
The xx, the indie-pop-electronica band from England, returns with their first album in over four years, I See You. The xx first burst onto the scene with their critically acclaimed 2009 debut, xx. After the success of their debut, the band followed up with Coexist in 2012. These albums both showcased the group’s minimalist approach to pop and dance music engineered by DJ Jamie Smith. Smith’s 2015 solo debut album, In Colour — released under the stage name Jamie xx — was one of the best records of that year and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. The album featured contributions from xx guitarist/vocalist Romy Croft and bassist/vocalist Oliver Sim, and its subsequent success makes the band’s debut all the more intriguing.
For fans of the xx’s previous work, this album keeps their atmospheric instrumentation and their oft-touched themes of love and loneliness. However, the addition of samples influenced Smith’s solo work and brought more dynamism to the tracks. Croft and Sim’s vocals might not be the showiest, but they both do a great job breathing emotion into these tracks. In what is perhaps the best song on the album, “Say Something Loving,” there is a great sample from the Alessi Brothers’ 1976 tune, “Do You Feel It?” that perfectly compliments Sim and Croft as they sing about a new love and the doubt that it might “slip away.” On a previous project, the band would never use such an obvious vocal sample, but it works quite well here and the song is better for it. Another standout track is the lead single “On Hold,” which again features a prominent vocal sample, this time from the Hall & Oates song, “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” This is a definite new direction for the band, but it is really a melding of the solo work of Smith and the previous sound of the xx that keeps their style cohesive.
Despite the additions of vocal samples to a few of the tracks, there are still standouts that have no samples and epitomize the group’s sound, such as “Performance,” in which Croft sings about the pressure she feels to act a certain way and to perform to impress rather than be herself. Here, Smith does a great job complimenting the vocals by letting them take center stage, while the strings in the background build the emotional tension. This sort of track is exactly what a fan of the band would expect, and the group pulls it off beautifully.
Overall, I See You has all the normal ingredients the xx’s records offer, from Smith’s carefully constructed beats to the duality of the two lead singers going back and forth with their trademark emotional, low-key vocals. For fans of Jamie Smith’s solo work, I See You might not be quite what they are looking for, but it’s certainly worth a listen. Smith’s solo work is characterized by his ingenious use of samples and his ability to create a variety of different emotions in a beat. While some may contend that the presence of Croft and Sim makes this album more restrained than Smith’s dynamic 2015 release, it is unfair to compare his solo work to that of the larger band. Smith and the xx embody different genres, therefore intentionally have different sounds. Instead of comparison, appreciate how the group has evolved to incorporate their previous work and the sound of Jamie xx’s solo work to create something even more exciting.