Coal Exchange, Cardiff | September 11th
There was a certain amount of resistance to the xx’s new album. A pitfall of not just becoming the most talked about new act in the country, but establishing a solidified sound that filled such a void, their sparse beauty a rarity among high-octane, sensory overloaded noise. Expectations were at such a level, it’s a genuine doubt many people actually knew what they expected. Was this the trickiest second album in recent memory? Perhaps.
So in presenting their new record Coexist, released the day before this gig at The Coal Exchange in Cardiff, The xx have to reinvent themselves to stay relevant, right? The modern attention span demands something groundbreaking. It demands another revelation to rank alongside the new-chartered waters that made the xx so spellbinding. Did Coexist do this? No. Was it another slice of emotionally charged, beautiful minimalism? Absolutely.
Naturally there was a temperate reaction in some quarters to the fact many strains of the formula had remained intact. Yet you get the impression such was the outpouring of worldwide good will to their debut (big American shows, Mercury Music Prize, 1.5 million Facebook fans) a return to the staple that made such an indelible mark on so many lives would be greeted with open arms. Such was their anti-hero status, formulated by a construct so sparse – not just in music but in attire, stage set-up and communication with the wider world – the themes they projected in their songs resonated on a level far more touching than could have been projected by someone who sang about similarly fragile matters, yet at the same time talked with a looser tongue.
Coexist is the band opening its doors again for another round. In these often small songs is crammed so much believable emotion even the smallest pitch shift or change in chord progression can cause spinal shudders. Sound familiar? Still sound good? Thought so. So with Coexistsitting comfortably alongside its debut brother with confidence, how have The xx moved into forming and reconstructing the live side of their character? The answer is with a show that will sit alongside the best you’re likely to see anywhere.
The high ceilings and expansive surroundings of Cardiff Coal Exchange provide the apt setting to let The xx live show 2.0 project its significant weight. Opening with Angels, the first single, the first track and the first point of reference from the new record sets the tone for an event which becomes elevated with the passing of each track.
It becomes highly obvious that Jamie xx has, in his time between records, honed his production skills to a level where he is now operating in the live arena in a way far removed from primitive xx live shows. Drum-pads, drum machines, drums, big drums, computerised drum sequencers, steel drums, the entire back line of the stage is given up to Mr xx’s percussive concoctions. From his remix work, solo productions and DJ sets, he has become a forerunner in on trend beat music in 2012. Tonight sees him act as a silent conductor for the beautiful guitar layers and vocal interplay between Romy and Oliver. From the steel drum sounds of Reunion, reminiscent of his Far Nearerrelease on Numbers, to the largest nods to the clubs he’s been frequenting on the UK bass and house-influenced Swept Away, which in turn blends into a ramped-up version of Shelter, his efforts to diversify has allowed for the live show to flourish on a level far removed from mere replication.
A spacey, washed-out version of Crystalised gives yet another nod to a desire to re-evaluate old material, this track in particular laden with new effects. It carries with it a wonderful drifting ambience, as if to reincarnate their biggest single to date in this way is to float away from the past. Other highlights include the honest and chilling Chained and the dramatic Missing, two standouts from Coexist.
It’s impossible to look at tonight without mentioning the beautiful and poignant lighting and atmospheric haze that adds so much more to these songs. Syncopated lights engulf the band while beams search and spin. It’s another example of the effort that’s gone into making this show’s dynamism so much more multi-faceted than previous incarnations. The sound is also pitch-perfect, with every subtle nuance of their minimalist output rushing to the forefront of your ears, essential when dealing with an act where periods of quiet form much of their songs.
If there is a criticism, the encore is a tad languid with the lovely, but hardly barnstorming, Stars closing proceedings after the equally unremarkable Tides. Sometimes encores really aren’t necessary.
The xx are presented tonight exactly as you’d wish: outsiders with warm hearts. The dialogue is friendly and they look genuinely happy to be baring their souls again. On this evidence they are still the most important band in the country right now.
Heart Skipped a Beat
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Words: Thomas Frost