The xx – review

Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

Dry ice billows across the stage, shrouding it in almost impenetrable fog. With each flash of the strobe lights, black-clad figures are briefly illuminated, no more distinct than silhouettes. The reticence of the xx is absolute: it makes them undemonstrative on record, tongue-tied in interview, and shadows in the midst of their own live show.

Just as they surely intend, this absence has the effect of bringing their music into sharper focus. Every note played is as bright and precisely chiselled as a cut diamond, no matter how subdued the song in which it's set. Romy Madley Croft's guitar lines are simple but glitter like pools of water in moonlight, trickling across Jamie Smith's crisp electronic drum patterns, chiming steel pans and plangent keyboards reminiscent of Aphex Twin at his least confrontational. Oliver Sim's bass fills the spaces between so unobtrusively, you notice it most when he's not playing at all.

It's contradictions like these that make the xx so enticing. On their first album, 2009's xx, they exposed the intensely private, articulated the fillips of the heart that are hardest to voice, and communicated carnality, but ever so innocently. Their second album, Coexist, released on 5 September, does all that again, in a way that is more direct and yet more obfuscatory. Croft's softly crooned declaration of love in Angels, their opening song tonight, could hardly be more plain, but nor could her seemingly vague reference to "a silent devotion", words she murmurs in a voice husky with desire, adding: "I know you know what I mean." Skin tingles and muscles flinch with involuntary memories of knowing exactly what she means.

For all its complexity, love is a narrow field; their sonic range is limited, too. What holds your attention is the subtlety of the modulations. Midway through the set, songs begin to tumble into each other, Sunset melting into Night Time, which tangles with Swept Away, which pours into Shelter, as though the music itself were deliquescing in coitus. The xx are not given to showiness, yet there is showmanship here in the sudden rumble of dub bass in Fantasy that makes the balconies vibrate and unleashes a shower of silver confetti, or in the crash of percussion emphasised by a blinding glare of light that punctuates Infinity. At the end, a huge letter X hovers over the stage, lit within with tiny specks, and for all its severity, it looks like a kiss.

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Maddy Costa

The GuardianTramp

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