It’s curious how these two shortlists have aligned. I’ve been pairing them up by the order on which they appear on the list (see those here: https://tjdizzle.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/mercury-vs-neptune/), but some of them are starting to look like they were picked to provide interesting similarities and contrasts to each other. We’ve already had a Manchester/Bury pair, an indie-bands-making-changes-on-their-second-albums pair, and now we have a pair that are A: both fronted by females, and B: about as far apart in terms of energy and style as possible. Strange indeed…
The xx are fairly well-known by now. Promotion wise, it helps that their album, ‘xx’ came out just after last year’s Mercury’s, so they are almost a year ahead of some of the other albums in the lists. They have quite a profile now, which I think is a very good thing considering the fairly uncommercial sound they are peddling here. ‘xx’ certainly has some good songs on it. In fact, it’s opening run of ‘Intro’, ‘VCR’, ‘Crystallised’ and ‘Islands’ is very good indeed. ‘Intro’ is a brief two-minute instrumental led by stark guitar, and it does the perfect job of introducing the album, as it should with a title like that. I would say that either ‘Intro’, or the following track ‘VCR’, is my favourite track on this album. Problem is, given that both tracks are short, this means the albums finest moments are dispensed with in the first five minutes, but more on that later…
My immediate thought upon first hearing ‘VCR’ was that it had pretty much the same guitar hook as ‘Geraldine’ by Glasvegas. My second thought was that the delivery of the vocals was like ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie (starts with ‘You’, similar pauses between lines etc.). I’m not saying The xx are frauds or rip-off merchants, but there is to my ears a vast similarity in that guitar melody, like it’s the same part with all the reverb and effects stripped off. Try it! Still, it’s a great guitar bit, and it makes the song pretty great too. And the glockenspiel intro seems original!
‘Crystallised’ is familiar to me from recent TV adverts, and has a distinctive guitar part that drops out completely for much of the song, which demonstrates the considerable minimalism at play on ‘xx’. The focus is mainly on the voices of Romy and Oliver (childhood friends apparently), both of which are delivered very straight, almost spoken. In fact, their voices sound almost bored; it’s intimate, and effective for the mood of the album, but occasionally this sound of boredom can rub off on the listener.
This album, and this band, has a very strong and distinctive sound, and that is both it’s great strength and its great weakness. Certainly its songs sound very different to most other current music; little is this sparse, minimal and quiet. But while the songs are different to everything else, they are very similar to each other! Hence ‘xx’ can start to drag, with every song apparently featuring the monotone, almost bored vocals of Romy and Oliver, minimal, unaffected guitar, quiet simple bass, and sometimes some stark beats. And the whole thing is so damn quiet and slow! Don’t get me wrong, I know that this is perfect for the band, and their formula works. But if you are like me, you will find it impossible to listen to the full 40 minutes of this record without at some point wishing for something that sounds a bit different! A bit of loudness, a fast song, a shout rather than a whisper, a sound that is a little less intimate and withdrawn. Again, these songs are more or less perfect for what they are, but together, they form an album that sometimes get stiflingly minimal.
And if you want more energy than The xx, then look no further than the other album I am reviewing! Rolo Tomassi’s album ‘Cosmology’ is hardcore punk, and frontwoman Eva Spence has a scream that is pretty much at the direct opposite end of the spectrum to Romy xx’s understated tones. The immediate problem for me here though, is that her scream is of the throat-shredding-constipated-angry-bear-metal-scream variety. And I simply do not like the sound of it! It does not make for good listening! The scream is on most of the tracks here, and it A: dominates the rest of the music, and B: sounds to me very generic and uninteresting. I admit this comes from a position of very little knowledge of the genre, but I don’t think I’ll be delving particularly deep into it unless the quantity of screams that sound like throat cancer drops significantly.
The particular shame on this album is that Eva can actually sing quite nicely, when she chooses to. ‘Tongue In Chic’, ‘Party Wounds’, ‘Unromance’, ‘Sakia’ and the title track ‘Cosmology’ all feature these more delicate vocals sometimes in combination with The Scream. On ‘Sakia’, she even goes direct from calm to scream, which actually makes it work as a contrast! Though the effect fades as The Scream continues to be used. Hmm.
‘Cosmology’ (the track) is however, something a bit different. It’s 8 minutes long for a start (a rarity for hardcore punk), and mainly features the ‘singing’, rather than the ‘screaming’ vocal technique. It is also mainly synths at play, the guitar being saved for the track’s epic conclusion. I quite liked this track, showing as it does dynamics and variety.
That title track is an exception though. The music generally comes across as standard hardcore to me, though with some use of synths and some intricate guitar parts and complex rhythms. And some songs do feature dynamics, which tends to be quite a bonus (xx…), such as ‘Kasia’, which has several parts to it, starting with a delicate guitar and synth intro. The sound is still generally dominated by the hardcore punk style (and that scream) though, and although I’ve been told that Rolo Tomassi are very progressive and innovative, (and this is presumably true within their field), their crunching and slamming sound just doesn’t really draw me in, and doesn’t really strike me as special. They also probably work best live (louder, the opportunity to move enthusiastically with like-minded people, the visual energy of the band), so this album is not their best medium. Simply though, I just don’t really like the style. Too much metal-screaming. ‘Cosmology’ ain’t for me.
Mercury: 2 / Neptune: 4