album review: The xx blends old, new material in ‘Coexist’

Mal Hartigan

The xx broke ground in the American music scene with the group’s self-titled debut album in 2009, opening a new door in the indie genre with a pleasantly melancholy sound and simple, distinguished guitar melodies. The xx’s recent 2012 release, “Coexist,” continues with the band’s characteristically dark and emotionally provocative material, but features enough notable differences from the previous album to intrigue new and current fans alike.

The xx’s most distinguishable characteristic is the group’s use of silence in each track. Songs from both albums utilize silence as effectively as instruments and vocals, which makes each track feel raw and exposed. This sparse sound is only reinforced by a lack of instrumental overlap, but allows the simple guitar melodies to crisply resonate behind sultry vocals.

There are no loud or driving drum beats, bass riffs or rhythm guitar. Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft’s haunting vocals plunge listeners directly into each song. The opening track, “Angels,” introduces ethereal guitar with Madley-Croft’s soft voice, which are the only two sounds throughout the song, so strategic silences cause momentary a capella vocals.

“Chained” features vocal harmonies between Madley-Croft and Sim, a subtly driving keyboard beat and emotionally charged guitar solos, laced with soft electronic sounds throughout.  “Fiction” has a quicker tempo, enforced with electronic keyboard beats which blend with the vocals and guitar.

The track “Try” is more experimental, featuring an eerie electronic riff that stands alone during the intro, a stunt The xx effectively incorporates into the entire song. “Sunset” has a bumping electronic downbeat to drive the tempo, layered underneath guitar solos, and only pauses for brief a capella vocals.

The 11 tracks on “Coexist” will make listeners sink into the same rip-your-heart-out nostalgia of The xx’s debut album, but offers a subtle new spin with more electronic infusions and beats without detracting from the band’s original qualities. Each track is in a minor key with the same relatable, broad lyrics addressing heartbreak, relationships and loneliness, but stabs listeners through the gut with The xx’s emotionally enthralling vocals.

“Coexist” takes its biggest risk in the track “Swept Away,” where keyboard dance beats suddenly emerge and persist until the song’s end. But somehow The xx incorporates the unfamiliar, abrupt sound without letting it seem out of place.

“Coexist” offers subtle but musically interesting differences compared to The xx’s debut album, but each song’s simple guitar and minor key may seem repetitious to some. No song is uplifting, but The xx makes it clear this isn’t the band’s intent. Listeners who enjoy plunging headfirst into melancholy nostalgia will appreciate “Coexist” and The xx’s consistently evocative material.

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