Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Confused Dreamworld: A Review of "Coexist" by The xx

With a name as minimalist as "The xx," it was no wonder that the universal praise garnered by the English band's eponymous debut album—sans article—rested in the music's beautiful simplicity. Three years later, the eagerly-awaited sophomore album, "Coexist," has materialized along with exponentially greater attention and, of course, expectation.

It is quite necessary to distinguish and thereby separate the fan from the critic. The fan in me was quite pleased with this album, and listened to the songs on repeat for days and days on end. Naturally, so did the critic as well, however the glaring flaws of this album could not go by unnoticed—and, of course, unmentioned.

Like most musicians, The xx write about love. Few things are as universal and few things are as hard to describe. It is perhaps this ineffability that could explain the truth behind the words on "Coexist," which is—well, that there aren't many words at all. While this lends itself well to the band's signature minimalism and diaphanous treatment of sound and subject, the lyrics are often so simple that they really aren't saying much of anything in particular. The stoic, whispery delivery that gave the band its memorability now only reinforces how prosaic the pieces that form "Coexist" can be. While the bleak simplicity can be quite moving—"Did I hold you too tight? / Did I not let enough light in?" croons Romy Madley-Croft on "Chained"—often, it isn't. The opening lines of "Try" ring out: "We bide our time / though the time is fine." That must be quite meaningful, right?

But is it? Sure, many argue that they are saying a lot more by saying so little, but this is a pseudo-philosophical cop-out. Or one may argue that the band is simply being creative: who else but The xx could draw four short words—"it's hard to say"—into 15 seconds of runtime? Is this some kind of stylistic irony, a tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition between sound and word meant to be acknowledged and admired by listeners? Perhaps, but the repeated laconicism of the band's songs is so constant that it leaves one thinking otherwise. It is hard not to imagine the band sitting around in a smoky room and one of the members suddenly interjecting: "Well, we shouldn't make an album that is entirely instrumental, because people want words. So let's just throw in some words here and there." Lo and behold, the quasi-profound slant rhymes and half-baked lyrical ambitions of this album were born.

Their characteristically short and choppy lyrics, however, leave room for vast stretches of echoing instrumental interludes, when it comes down to it, it is in these instances that the album, and The xx's music as a whole, soars. Close your eyes and let the Jamaican steel drums mixed with guitar sounds on "Reunion" and "Sunset" cocoon you with nostalgia tinged with the scent of ocean waves, or let the sweet, distant guitar of the first single, "Angels," lift you up to an intangible paradise. You may roll your eyes and think that this is a bit too much, but the point is that any description of the music is too much: it is the simplicity of the beats and melodies that make the emotional whirlwind behind them so deliciously inexpressible and moving. Trying to describe the sounds is like trying to catch an elephant with a butterfly net. It may have seemed like a good idea in a dream, but when you actually do it, you realize your embarrassing ineptitude.

The xx, quite simply, make some of the best beats in town, and "Coexist" is the newest testament to this prowess. They know how to mix with artful perfection traditional instruments and electronic sounds, leaving the resonating riffs that Oliver Sim constructs with thoughtful asceticism. One of the strongest tracks, "Tides," epitomizes the band's ability to fashion succinct and downright catchy melody whose beauty is further reified when repeated with different instruments, creating a simultaneously complex but starkly simple sound. This is because the beats are never overbearing or overdone, leaving you with an insatiable addiction for more and more of something of which you are only given a small tease.  The xx's music plays hard-to-get, and that is why it is so irresistible.

The singing itself is the same wispy, dreamy, trancelike whisperings that distinguished the first album. Their stagnant fidelity to a signature, hard-to-hear murmur can grow tedious, but with the first album, it was alright. They were a new band and they were a fresh one, so we smiled and nodded, pushed aside minor quibbles, and welcomed them with open arms. Now, with a second album, the wearisomeness of their singing style is a lot more palpable and harder to forgive. The more disheartening truth is that even the instrumentals—the band's forte—can get a little old, or lacking. If you're not paying attention, you won't even realize when one song ends and another begins, making for a constant, unchanging atmosphere that blurs the album into one congealed mass.

Indeed, you could even shuffle the first and second albums together in their entirety without noticeable difference. It is after you have completely overplayed the addictive gems of "Coexist" that you can truly strip the album down to what it's worth, and the skeleton looks almost identical to "xx": emotional, captivating, and evocative, yes, but sagging slightly under the weight of weaker, skippable tracks. While "Coexist" has, without a doubt, beautiful new sounds, this novelty rests not in variation or experimentation but in the unremarkable fact that this is three years after the first album. "Coexist" is more like the B side of "xx", leaving a somewhat familiar and thus lackluster sheen that appears shiny only because of a necessary time gap between the two albums. "Coexist" is, in short, quite safe. While consistency is good, you wish you could shake Oliver Sim and Rom Madley-Croft out of their pensive and lethargic quietude of which we already got our satisfying fill from "xx".

If the band were to explore new musical plains and sonic realms other than the ethereal breathlessness that characterizes their current discography, then the world would have a noteworthy change to laud. Nevertheless, "Coexist" is solid. Neither superlative nor lesser than its predecessor, simply because of their synonymity, and nor is it an incarnation of musical brilliance (the closest being "Crystalised" on the first album).

But does that matter to the fan in me? A little, but not too much. The critic? Well, he will bite his tongue for a little longer: the xx are still the hip new kids on the block for now, and the third time's a charm—a charm that will be anticipated with even greater expectation.

RATING: 7/10

TRACKS TO LISTEN TO: Angels, Fiction, Reunion, Sunset, Tides

Monday, September 3, 2012

Coney Island

Jackie, Rockie, Anna, Jessie, Lissy, and I spent yesterday afternoon in Coney Island, a place that, despite my location here in the NJ/NY area since birth, I had strangely never visited before. Though the skies looked apocalyptically stormy, the boardwalk and amusement park had the quintessential, neon-light-and-cotton-candy glamor that I was expecting, or rather, that all people expect. Quaint, charming, and ostentatious in the most deliciously self-conscious way.

Perhaps the more mystifying allure of Coney Island—indeed, all beaches like it—is the disparate coexistence of something so man-made, materialistic, consumeristic, and boisterous as the boardwalk, lined with yellow restaurant signs and live musicians, with the entirely natural, unchanging beauty of the water a short distance away. It is as enticing as it is mildly indecent, almost blasphemously perverse. Then again, it all perfectly reflects the amalgam of disparate emotions and thoughts that beaches in general seem to exude for me.

The feel of hot, yielding sand or the scent of saltwater or the sound of waves crashing against mossed boulders or the dizzying downwards view of advancing and receding tides all construct a sense of nostalgia, at least in my experience. A quiet splash reminds me of the time a secretly malicious wave took my plastic green pail and carried it too far for me to chase after it, while I was busy digging a moat for my sandcastle. Running children recall for me the excited cries of my sister and I as we would egg our father along the boardwalk in the hopes that we could buy a cheap souvenir whose gaudy luster was made for the ephemeral excitement and subsequent abandonment that would characterize its possession (as is the case with all childhood toys). The nostalgia is sweet but tinged with the sharp consciousness that it is all part of a past that has been blurred into one solid chunk of time, with the infinite horizon serving as a timeline.

The endlessness of water and sky fill me with the same childish wonder—and fear—as when I was six years old, only now the grand scope of a beach fill me with a humbling sense of my own insignificance, but also power. These are neither vain nor self-deprecating thoughts. They are simply truths. You are, ultimately, alone, and what do you have over the infinite expanse of rolling waves and clouds? You are small. But you have a mind and a heart and the mere fact that you can engage in such cognitive and metacognitive pensees of something as simple as a beach vista is enough to realize that our power is internal, quiet, but very mighty indeed.

It could simply be the power of nature to leave one in a state of introspective contemplation, or at least a pervasive yet elusive feeling of general existence, of consciousness, a feeling of feeling itself. It is stimulating as much as it is calming, and it makes you as conscious of time as it seems to erase it. Minutes are waves and tides lap your toes with vague recollection mixed with new introduction, a desire to remember and also keep you.

You may be rolling your eyes at how ruminative I can get over something as simply as a beach, and I don't blame you. I'm practically rolling my eyes right now (or rather, I'm typing with one hand as I eat a cookie, which I think suggests the same practiced self-patronization as an eye-roll). The truth of the matter is I simply can't keep my mind from reeling forward and back whenever I am presented with—well, anything at all, really. A curse wrapped in a blessing shrouded in convoluted and muddling thought.

Not to switch tracks so suddenly, but I think that's why I love photography. It gives me the ability to capture with such stagnant simplicity a range of thoughts and emotions. When words fail, pictures can succeed, and vise versa. Yet I like to rely on both, in equal measure.

Here are all the other pictures I took from the wonderful afternoon and evening spent at Coney Island with the best company one could ask for.