Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Music Review: Filling the musical void with The xx and Jessie Ware

By John Hill

To have a well-rounded musical palette, you need more than shiny pop songs and thumping dance beats. Whether it’s a drive through the mountains or simply chilling at home, there is a need for more laid-back music that helps stir your soul or lift the burdens of the daily grind. Fortunately, two new releases from UK acts The xx and Jessie Ware are set to fill that void as we shift in to an autumnal mode.

The xx shot to the top of critics’ Best Of lists in 2009 with their debut album xx, leading to the album’s selection as the winner of the Barclaycard Mercury Prize in 2010 for the best album released in the United Kingdom and Ireland. So how does a young band that found critical and commercial success on their first release follow that up? If you are the members of The xx, you stay true to your original indie pop sound while evolving in other directions.

What is the sound of The xx? To say it is indie pop does not do it justice, because it is fairly unique in a marketplace filled with grinding chords and driving drum and bass lines. The trio, consisting of vocalists Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft and producer Jamie Smith, offer a stripped-down sound that is both expansive and minimal all at the same time. While guitar licks propel many of their songs, the vocal duo of Sim and Madley-Croft add emotional complexity to each track they appear on. Check out Madley-Croft’s heartfelt delivery of “Angels,” their first single off of Coexist as performed on Conan.

The amazing thing for me is that the way they sound on that live clip is exactly how they sound on record. While opening track “Angels” may not reflect it, Jamie Smith stated early on that Coexist would be influenced by club music. “Chained” sounds like a sleeker version of music Everything but the Girl released in their Walking Wounded era with the added bonus of both male and female vocals, but it is not all driven by beats. In fact, the first half of “Reunion” is propelled not by guitars or a drum machine, but rather a steel drum. However, the heart of Coexist lays in “Sunset,” an all-too-familiar tale of ex-lovers who see each other on the street but don’t acknowledge each other’s existence. When Madley-Croft’s and Sim’s voices entwine at the end, the sadness of knowing they both wish things were different is palpable.

Occasionally I find myself longing for the days of Soul II Soul, Lisa Stansfield and Sade ruling the Pop and R&B charts with a mixture of strong vocals, laid-back vibes and unexpected beats. While Sade pre-dated those other acts by a few years, all three acts helped redefine pop upon their releases with songs that were inherently soulful but with a pop sensibility that allowed them to reach a wider audience. Fast forward 20 plus years, and English vocalist Jessie Ware and producer Dave Okumu are bringing a similar albeit updated sound to the masses via Ware’s debut disc Devotion.

Devotion kicks off with its title track, which harkens back to the classic collaboration of Massive Attack and Tracey Thorn (of Everything but the Girl fame) on “Protection,” mixing a strong, distinct female vocal with a pulsating electronic track. From there, the record flows through a stream of soul, pop and trip hop beats that provide something for any mood. From the anthemic “Wildest Moments” to the sensual Sade-esque “Running,” Devotion delivers a sonically diverse album without losing track of the powerful vocalist that the tracks were created to showcase. Highlight track “Taking In Water” is a power ballad fitting of a woman whose voice cannot be confined to one genre, and closer “Something Inside” floats off toward the horizon, hopefully leading to Ware’s next set of musical journeys. In a business where music is written for a hook first and a vocalist somewhere further down the list, the combo of Okumu’s production and Ware’s voice are equally matched in brilliance.

While his full-time job is in education, John Hill also writes a successful music blog titled Pop Music Notes. He is also active on Twitter @popmusicnotes and lives in Denver with his partners in crime James and Bruiser.