The xx — “Coexist”

The xx’s self-titled debut seemed to come out of nowhere in 2009. It was an album that sounded like nothing else at the time and displayed a very young band that had a shockingly developed sound, making use of minimalist electronics and space to create perfect late-night soundscapes. But all those elements that made it great also made it age poorly for me: after burning through it that year with seemingly hundreds of listens, I’ve rarely revisited it in the last couple of years. Once that out-of-nowhere element of surprise was gone, I became sick of the album’s sound and found that there was little to it beyond the surface.

Nonetheless, I was interested to hear their new album Coexist, because I still remember that feeling of first discovering their debut. I also think it’s a fascinating case study in how a young band tries to live up to massive expectations after such a successful first album — especially one like The xx, who carved out such a specific, well-defined niche that it seemed like there may not even be anything left to explore. I was curious if they would expand their sound, change their songwriting style, or pull any other tricks to separate this from their debut.

But in the back of my head, I pretty much knew what Coexist was going to be, and that’s what makes it so disappointing. It’s not that it’s horrible or something: if you liked the first album, chances are you’ll like this one. But that’s also kind of the problem. While most artists I really respect throw curveballs at their audience, Coexist is a lazy softball right down the middle. It’s the musical equivalent of a “meets expectations” grade in elementary school. It does everything that you expect it to — no more, no less — and then kind of evaporates after you listen to it, completely failing to leave any sort of impression.

At least those were my initial thoughts, but I have a habit of unhealthily analyzing my own opinions. And I thought: “what the hell did I expect?” It’s not like The xx were going to release a prog-metal psychedelic rock opera or an album of acoustic ukulele folk songs. This is just what they do. And if I liked what they did before (at least for a time), why wouldn’t I now? Am I so starved for experimentation and change that I can’t just enjoy music for what it is?

That may be the case, but I also think the songs on Coexist just aren’t as good as they were on the debut. Nothing on it is nearly as memorable as “VCR” or “Crystalised,” which had legitimate hooks to go with the band’s spare music. The exception is opening track “Angels,” a beautiful song by Romy Madley-Croft that is actually more minimal than anything on the debut but still manages to make a pretty big impact. The rest of the album just feels like The xx is trapped in the tiny musical world they created on the debut, with all the hushed male-female vocals and samey lyrics about love. (“Reunion” sounds kind of like what an xx parody band would come up with if such a horrible, misguided idea ever came into existence.) They make an effort to occasionally incorporate some dance beats, but they never quite gel with the music. Jamie Smith’s production is slick as usual, but most of the album feels underwritten in a way that the debut managed to avoid despite its bare-bones style.

The good news for The xx is that they’re still young and talented. Also, they’re already much more successful than I will ever be at anything I do in my life. And who knows, maybe Coexist appeals to their die-hard fans who want to hear more of the same stuff instead of someone like me, who always loves it when artists change up their sound and actively antagonize their core audience. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone really being blown away by Coexist when it’s so similar to what they’ve already heard before.

Lotus Plaza – “Spooky Action at a Distance”

Atlanta indie-rockers Deerhunter initially gained notoriety for frontman Bradford Cox’s flamboyant personality, wild stage antics, and experimental pop songwriting. But while Cox has always dominated the headlines for the band, their most recent album, 2010’s Halcyon Digest, showcased their secret weapon: guitarist Lockett Pundt, who stepped out of Cox’s shadow and produced the best song on the album with “Desire Lines,” a 7-minute spacey shoegaze centerpiece that managed to sound epic without really trying.

Spooky Action at a Distance is the second album Pundt has released under the Lotus Plaza moniker, and it’s about what you would expect from the guy who penned “Desire Lines”: non-stop guitar jams that make skillful use of repetition to turn tunes that seem like they should be ordinary into epic, surprisingly catchy rock songs. Deerhunter fans like me that prefer their anthemic guitar-rock side to their bedroom pop side are sure to love it, and it’s probably my most listened-to album of 2012 so far.

Pundt doesn’t have the big personality that Cox does, but he has a quiet confidence that suits his laid-back style, and his lyrics that are often about nostalgic yearning are also a nice match for his bright, summery guitar lines. Songs like “Monoliths” and “Remember Our Days” are about simple themes like friendship and childhood, but Pundt infuses them with just enough personality and hooks to make them into effortless anthems. Pundt never sounds like he’s trying too hard, even on a song like “Jet Out of the Tundra” that launches into a lengthy, repetitive instrumental similar to that of “Desire Lines.”

Nothing on Spooky Action at a Distance sounds that groundbreaking, particularly with this summery guitar-pop being trendy in recent years. The shoegaze style always will bring comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, but Pundt mixes it up a bit with some acoustic strumming on songs like “Black Buzz” and “Dusty Rhodes.” Some of the songs also have a driving rhythm reminiscent of Stereolab, which pushes the music forward and helps keep Pundt’s specifically defined style from overstaying its welcome. Mostly, Pundt separates himself from the competition by simply executing the songs better and with more consistency. There are no weak songs on the album, and they all seem to get better the more you listen to them. He has a style that is relaxing but also engaging, and I find it difficult to stop listening to the album when I only intended to play a single song off of it.

Overall, Spooky Action is a significant step forward for Pundt, who deserves to be more than just “that other guy in Deerhunter.” In fact, I prefer this album to any of the Deerhunter or Atlas Sound albums so far. It’s not trying so hard and doesn’t feel labored over, and it’s not caught up in trying to be “important.” Much like the man who made it, it seems to succeed and transcend effortlessly.

Listen to it on Spotify

Fiona Apple – “The Idler Wheel…”

Stream it on NPR

If there were any lingering doubts I had about the first Fiona Apple album in seven years, they were quickly erased when she revealed the title: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. The decision to go for another poem title after 1999’s 90-word When the Pawn… was a classic Fiona Apple move, one that made her detractors smirk and made her supporters shake their heads and chuckle to themselves. Seeing it was a sign of reassurance, a confirmation that the Fiona Apple who always follows her artistic muse — occasionally to her detriment — was still around.

Being a Fiona Apple fan is often frustrating. While some artists always seem to be in the spotlight and working on new projects, Apple — a noted recluse who claims to rarely leave her house — falls completely off the radar between albums. This can sometimes give the illusion that she isn’t working or doesn’t care about making music anymore, and at times in the last few years I wondered if I would ever hear new music from her again. The advantage is that when she does finally resurface it feels like an event, and with The Idler Wheel… she’s offered a reminder of how much music has sorely lacked her presence since 2005.

Apple officially returned to the spotlight at the South By Southwest music festival, where her performances of new songs were met with rave reviews for their raw energy and nerves. She frequently sang with her eyes closed, twitching back and forth and, as usual, sang with a tremendous amount of conviction, as if she was excising some inner demon with each performance. Little details like this are what makes Apple so refreshingly different from what music has become now. There are no put-ons or affectations, no musical gimmickry or autotune. She does not hide behind a persona. All she’s done (at least since Tidal) is be herself, and that’s especially true on The Idler Wheel…, which is probably her most Fiona Apple-y album yet.

The Idler Wheel… mostly ditches the sometimes excessive instrumentation that permeated Extraordinary Machine, putting the focus entirely where it should be: on Apple’s voice and lyrics. The music is primarily based around piano and percussion, with a lot of different drums and several sampled sounds used to give the songs Apple’s trademark quirkiness while not stealing the spotlight from her. As usual, Apple’s lyrics are witty and reflective, focusing on her relationships and inner struggles. Her voice used to sound silky smooth on earlier albums but now has a world-weary rasp that serves the songs and subject matter better.

Like all of her albums since Tidal, The Idler Wheel… isn’t making a huge bid for radio play and commercial success, as the spare instrumentation makes the songs more suited for quiet headphone listening than blasting on the radio. Lead single “Every Single Night” is probably the most accurate glimpse into Apple’s psyche so far (and the artistic psyche in general), where “every night is a fight with my brain.” The accompanying music video with Apple wearing an octopus on her head and being covered in snails reminds me a bit of the video for “Criminal,” but with slimy animals instead of creepy sexuality.

Other songs, like “Werewolf” have a sense of looking back, perhaps to early childhood. The most chill-inducing moment on the album is in the last minute of that song, when Apple samples in the sound of children playing on a playground, instantly giving the song a tangible sense of longing for simpler times as she sings the quotable line “nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.” Elsewhere, Apple pays tribute to former boyfriend Jonathan Ames (on “Jonathan”) rather than excoriating him like she may have done when she was younger. Album closer “Hot Knife” is probably the catchiest song on the album, a timpani-backed duet with her sister where lovers are imagined as hot knives that cut through butter.

It’s hard to imagine any member of Apple’s rabid fan base being disappointed with The Idler Wheel…, which is an extremely individual record that shows her talents in top form. Her voice sounds better than it ever has, and the arrangements complement it perfectly. Her lyrics, which I’ve always contended are some of the few in music that stand up as poetry without accompaniment, are as quotable as ever, and Apple continues to have the special ability to make her personal experiences seem universal. This album serves as a reminder that she is one of the most talented singer-songwriters there is, and that her work is always worth the wait.