The xx Play Intimate Vans Soundcheck Gig at SPIN

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The xx / Photo by Ben Rowland
WRITTEN BY
John Macdonald

The xx are an anomaly. In an age when most young buzz bands go for the biggest, the brightest, and the quirkiest, this London trio opts for calculated restraint over technicolor bombast.

They dress head-to-toe in black, and barely move on stage. While their music, as evidenced by last year's much praised self-titled debut, is a minimalist's wet dream.

Filtering the angular post-punk of the Cure and Joy Division through the sultry, beat-heavy atmospherics of contemporary R&B, songs like "Shelter" and "Heart Skipped a Beat" attain an eerie, mesmerizing calm -- the perfect soundtrack to a seduction or a betrayal. Very mature stuff, indeed, for a bunch of 20 year olds.Watch the videos >>

Wednesday night the group stopped by SPIN's downtown Manhattan offices for a short set as part of our Vans Soundcheck series, with drinks provided by Corona.

The unusual twist: Beat mastermind Jamie Smith sat out the show, leaving the band's songwriters, guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim, to perform as a duo for the first time.

"Fingers crossed," Sim smiled, greeting the 150 assembled SPIN staffers and guests.

There was really nothing to worry about. The xx is all about subtraction -- minimal, exacting, exhilarating. Now there'd be even less.

Standing side by side on the tiny stage, their trademark white X logo stamped behind them, Madley Croft and Sim were more like schoolmates than bandmates -- friends since the age of three running through a few old songs. Without the heft and punch of Smith's beats, the music turned raw and skeletal. "This is how we write a lot of our songs, just bass and guitar," explained Sim.

The spareness of the performance highlighted the songs' charms. Sim's voice, sometimes lost on the band's debut, sounded renewed and refocused on "Crystallized" -- a muggy growl worthy of a man twice his age.

Album standout "Shelter," with its unforgettable Madley Croft line, "Maybe I had said / Something that was wrong / Can I make it better with the lights turned on," managed a quiet, desperate beauty. While the singer's spindly, reverb-drenched guitar brought to mind Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" (of all things) during the brooding, sex-starved "Infinity."

As they locked eyes and swayed to the music's phantom rhythms, Madley Croft and Sim made their songs work in ways they hadn't quite before. Their vocal duets had a greater urgency; their interlocking bass and guitar lines were riskier, more intimate.

Just months after the xx's hype blew across the pond, landing their debut album on countless Top-10 lists, it's astounding and refreshing that they can still blow an audience away by doing so little.

The xx Setlist:
1. Crystallized
2. Islands
3. Shelter
4. VCR
5. Infinity

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