Crystalised: the xx
Guitarist Romy Madley Croft, bassist Oliver Sim, and beatmaker Jamie Smith, now in their early 20s, still make music for doomy, charcoal wallflowers, but that hardly describes the well-heeled Austin throng last night. The trio’s sparse, black stage set-up and attire matched the venue’s interior nicely, but audience dress leaned more toward graduate-school fashionable than goth. Whatever its socioeconomic make-up, the house went rapturous from the outset.
A single spotlight illuminated Croft’s face as she sang “Angels,” a smudgy lover’s ballad that opens 2012’s sophomore effort Coexist. Dressed in celestial guitars and sturdy percussion, the disc boosts its band from potential prey to predator – confident, assured, and pinpoint precise sonically. So much so, in fact, that the UK threeome has become a mainstream band.
Airtight pop minimalism still seems like a strange recipe for success, but the general public has proved easily seduced. 2009’s self-titled debut today stands as a modern classic. After its endless international tour, the xx developed repute as slightly aloof onstage, their intimately-recorded songs rendered just out of reach live. They were young, shy, and singing personal things to an audience ready to judge.
In 2013, however, the band’s effortless recorded cool has caught up. The fidgety “Crystalised” I witnessed a few years ago was replaced Monday with an entirely reworked, entirely reimagined alternate take, structured squarely on a teeth-rattling percussive matte. Subverting expectations is hard to do unless you’ve grown some hair on your chest, and Oliver Sim wielded his bass like a weapon. Croft’s notes never felt out of her reach, only now she knows it. Programmer Smith, meanwhile, has spent the last few years fielding calls from Thom Yorke, the late Gil Scott-Heron, and Drake.
So, instead of the same old songs and the same old bows, the xx had fun. Smith introduced his steel drum anthem “Far Nearer,” with Croft and Sim filling in the gaps of the original’s vocal samples. The three dropped any somber pretenses towards the middle of the 75-minute show, performing an honest-to-god medley around a bulldozing club beat. “Islands” sounded so much better as something we can dance to. These are creative options not found on the debut. This performance knew where it was going and what it was doing at all times.
“We’re really excited because this is our first headlining show in Austin,” announced Sim early on.
After an almost insurmountable wave of hype, including previous South by Southwest sets and many a roasted festival appearance, the xx’s Moody set felt like a homecoming. Because in 2013 on a big stage, the xx certainly looked at home.