11:54 AM CDT, September 28, 2012
3.5 stars (out of 4)
The xx debuted in 2009 with a self-titled album that was something of a quiet-storm indie-rock success story – combining subtle touches of R&B rhythm and texture with sparse guitar and haunted vocal interplay. After sweeping to the 2010 Mercury Music Prize in the U.K., the London-based trio is back with “Coexist” (Young Turks).
As improbable as it may sound, “Coexist” is even more minimal and subtle than its predecessor. Single-note guitar lines twist around elegant counterpoint bass melodies. The low end is almost subliminal, felt more than heard. Jamie Smith’s array of programmed rhythms stretch between hip-hop thump and Caribbean steel-drum chime. But just as often, the beats are invisible, leaving big chasms of silence where the tension between vocalists Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft can simmer.
Their bedroom voices convey anxiety and longing. “My heart is beating in a different way,” Sim murmurs in “Missing,” while Madley-Croft’s wordless harmonies hover ghost-like in the background. Fulfillment is always just out of reach. The sound conveys that sense of possibility slipping off into the shadows: guitar notes and drum beats surface briefly, then dissolve.
The melodies aren’t quite as immediate as the best songs from the debut, but “Coexist” functions as a near-perfect mood piece. Because there are so few elements in each song, each reverberating guitar note, each tick of a hi-hat or whispered aside makes a bigger impact. It’s an album designed to be heard through ear buds or head phones, a 37-minute cocoon for shut-ins.