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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012

The xx Go Small

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It’s hard to listen to the hushed, minimal pop of The xx’s debut album without feeling like you’re eavesdropping. When guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim trade verses with each other, they sound like two prospective lovers in conversation, confiding their desires and reservations in whispers meant for them alone. The sexual tension between the singers can feel almost unbearable at times.

It’s all an illusion, though. Croft and Sim aren’t lovers—they’re childhood friends who regard each other as siblings and laugh at any romantic speculation—nor are they even addressing each other in their songs. “Generally we write our lyrics separately from each other, and we don’t explain the lyrics to each other,” Croft explains. “One of us will come up with the melody and the other of us will mirror it, or change it around a bit. I just like the idea of getting two different perspectives on a situation. They’re all love songs, but we’re sharing the platform, I guess.”

There is some truth, however, to the impression that the sentiments on the band’s self-titled debut weren’t meant to be heard by outsiders, or at least not by an audience the size the group ultimately attracted. With its pairing of softly pulsing EDM and sighing indie-pop—a seemingly simple combination that had never been pulled off quite so elegantly—the London group’s 2009 debut emerged as one of the year’s critical triumphs, especially in the United Kingdom, where it was awarded a prestigious Mercury Prize. No freshman band could have anticipated that kind of response to their first album, especially not a band made up of such shy 20-year-olds. “We made our first album for ourselves,” Croft says. “We didn’t think anybody would hear it apart from us and a few people when we played it at a pub down the road. When we record, we try our best to just shut out the world.”

That may have been even more true of the group’s new Coexist. Written as a welcome retreat after years of touring, an exhausting commitment the group sometimes struggled with—“None of us are natural, born-for-the-stage performers,” Croft says, “so it’s taken a lot of time and growing up for us to become confident onstage”—the sophomore album forced the trio to confront how different their lives are now than they were three years ago. Between albums, producer Jamie xx had discovered renown outside the band, remixing artists like Radiohead and Adele and producing the title track for Drake’s blockbuster 2011 album, Take Care. After an experience like that, returning to a soft-spoken little band—even a really prestigious soft-spoken little band—is bound to seem a bit mundane.

“The thing about Jamie is he was making beats before he was making beats with us,” Croft explains. “I really enjoy his outside work because I wasn’t a part of it, so I can just enjoy it as a fan. And all of us are really excited by the stuff he’s made. When he came back to record with us again, I think he had to relearn how to work on music with his friends, without overshadowing the music. We all had to relearn how to make music together now that we’ve all kind of grown together.”

Apparently it wasn’t too much of a struggle, because Coexist easily recaptures the intimacy of The xx’s first record. Sophomore albums tend to be bigger, busier extrapolations of their predecessors, yet Coexist is somehow even smaller and more inward than the band’s debut. The negative space that shadowed their first album has expanded into its own panorama.

“With our first album, we didn’t realize we were making minimal music, or music that had space,” Croft says. “Our general mindset was that anything we recorded into the computer had to be something we could play live, and since we weren’t, to be honest, the best musicians in the world, we had to keep things simple, things that I could sing and play on my guitar. With this album we were more aware of that. We were better at playing our instruments, so we ended up taking quite a few things out of the mix at the end. We’d listen to the songs without different elements, putting portions of some of the tracks on mute, and realized that it sounded better without them.”

If the group’s reserved music sometimes gives off the impression that the band is humorless or standoffish, Croft insists that’s not the case. “We’re not as moody and serious as you might think,” she insists. “I was thinking earlier about how we looked so serious in our press shots when we were younger, but they looked that way because we were so nervous. We’re actually quite fun people.”

The xx play the Pabst Theater with John Talabot on Sunday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m.