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XX in The Bass Bin

South London's newest stars flesh out the lowest register

The XX (with Jamie Thomas Smith, right) soundtrack modern heartbreak.

By Nate Oak | Posted 4/21/2010

The XX

Sonar April 23.

Now is an era of perma-interconnection, yet it seems people have grown more distant than ever before. Everybody spends more time in front of computers, communicating with others around the globe, yet lack the ability to talk to their neighbors. An absence of true personal connection is a hallmark of a generation of youth who hug first, seek meaning later, and talk solely through text messages. The British trio the xx's emotive and sparse debut record, XX (XL), captures and distills this desire for love, longing, and the loneliness of early adulthood impeccably.

On XX, guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim trade words of yearning and passion with unexpected maturity. On "Stars," Croft sings, "And I can draw the line on the first date/ I'll let you cross it/ let you take every line I've got," with a self-awareness that in the heat of the moment, the fleeting fulfillment of the flesh is an all too alluring and immediate relief from the solitary nature of modern life.

The album's arrangements and sound are marvels of self-production. The xx's adept use of negative space speaks to its gifted ear, realizing that not playing can be far more effective than ripping through one chord after another. Every element of its sound is carefully rendered. On "Fantasy," MPC drum kicks, deeply resonant bass tones, and a single, reverbed guitar craft an intimate and haunting backdrop to the evocative imagery of lust and the veiled insecurity of Sim's words: "Don't rest with less/ I'm burning to impress/ It's deep in the middle of me/ I can be fantasy."

"Everyone has input, but I definitely took it upon myself and spent a lot time working on my own," says Jamie Thomas Smith, the xx's producer and drum programmer. The polite and soft-spoken 20-year-old speaks by telephone during the second American leg of the band's current tour, and offers insight on the debut album's production. "The initial idea for the sound came from the demos that were recorded in Romy's house. They were lo-fi, basically, but the sound we wanted was in there, so we just wanted to reproduce it. If it sounds well placed, it's because we spent four or five years previous to recording the album playing live just working out the arrangements."

The xx's air of melancholy and, specifically, Smith's solitary and meticulous work draws a parallel to post-dubstep producers. The bass is mixed higher in the mix on XX--for many bands, lower frequencies are relegated to subcutaneous layers, deliberately or otherwise. Bass is a very guttural thing. Heard in loud enough volumes and low enough frequencies, it becomes a physical element rather than an aural one. It becomes tangible, physically moving. The xx may not dabble in the sub-bass explorations of Loefah or Coki, but the juxtaposition of the low end with the band's lyrical content is compelling.

"It was a conscious thing that we did because of the music that I love," Smith says of the bass in XX. "Because there is a very minimal amount of instrumentation, the bass can be much louder. We actually had to master it about four or five times because the bass was distorting everything else."

All three members of the xx attended the Elliott School, where other graduates include Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), Will Bevan (Burial), and members of Hot Chip. The school is located in South London, among the boroughs in which dubstep anecdotally developed in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Smith was able to spend his weekends at early dubstep shows and witness the genre's birth. "All the music that is taking over all originated from South London, from Croydon and Brixton, basically the area that we grew up, so we do feel a connection with it," he says. "I'm so happy there has been this new musical movement that I love and am able to be a part of. It doesn't happen that often."

Some of Smith's solo remixes have circulated online, namely on the xx's mix for FACT magazine from July 2009. His edit of the xx's cover of Aaliyah's "Hot Like Fire" swaps the bass guitar riff for a bass-bin shaking sub, cuts the vocals out almost entirely, and adds a hypnotic groove dotted with water droplet pings to tie it together.

FACT also reported earlier this year that Smith would perform his "dubstep project" at the Melt! Festival in July. "They kind of came up with that on their own," Smith says. "I am going to play a lot of my new productions, but it isn't a live show or anything."

Amid touring and everything associated, he remains busy--remixing the new Gil Scott-Heron album, for example. "After every show on this tour we have after parties and I am DJing a lot of those, and back in the UK I've got some DJ stuff lined up," he says, The xx's roots in dubstep run deep and with the UK dance music continuum's light-speed rate of evolution, the inevitable musical cross pollination is a thrilling prospect.

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