Listen to this track by Mercury Prize-winning R&B flavoured, with 80s post-punk overtones, British quartet, more recently a trio, the XX. It’s “Islands”, as taken off of their acclaimed 2009 debut XX. Here’s the thing, good people: when a band lists Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, and Rhianna along with the Cure, The Kills, and the Pixies, you’ve got to sit up and take notice. I mean, the very idea!
But, here’s another thing. There has been a long tradition in the history of British rock music that holds a particular importance on R&B, in whatever form it may take. In many ways, as unique as this band is on the current musical landscape, this crossing of musical boundaries into the world of pop R&B is just a continuation of this tradition.
Yet what unlikely bedfellows these two forms are, in their more modern forms. In some ways, they’re diametrically opposed, with pop R&B designed for beautiful people, and post-punk designed for the kid at the back of the class wearing a trenchcoat, eyeliner, and a scowl.
But this band make it look like a case of the Montague’s meeting the Capulets, finding love instead of enmity. If rock n roll is about rebellion at all, than a two-finger salute to the walls between the indie rock world and the world of R&B is just what the doctor ordered. What’s most incredible to me on this tune is that the seams don’t show. There’s no indication that this has been deliberate at all, other than a sincere love of both forms informing an original sound. There’s no gimmick at work here. The danger would be to concentrate on the subversion of style, and forget the song, and the record, altogether.
And what a song!
The clipped and spare guitar, and the cold space between each player is wonderfully contrasted by the warm vocal lines. And for even more contrast, there’s the delicate love song sentiments against the desolate production and minimalist arrangement which is so common in post-punk forms. This contrast brings out the value in each ingredient, making the whole so much sexier, and appealing.
The best part is that it sounds entirely unselfconscious, effortless, making those walls between the styles seem even less important than ever before.
For more information and more music, be sure to check out The XX official site.