Live: The xx the Music Box @ Fonda
Like many things about the British band the xx, the chorus of their single "VCR" sounds small but feels enormous. Over a handspun bit of girl-group guitar pop and brittle drum machines, vocalists Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft plan a big night for a teenage couple. "Watch things on VCRs with me and talk about big love," they sing, in a glancing way that feels like hands pulling closer across a couch on a date. It's a gentle scene, but it doesn't seem like one to them. In fact, "I think we're superstars," they boast to each other.
Well, the xx are actual superstars now. The trio's 2009 self-titled debut introduced their almost confrontationally intimate take on the Cure's wan guitar grandeur, spooky '90s R&B like Aaliyah and D'Angelo and the electronic textures of a hundred U.K. beat-music scenes. It took a few months to percolate, but when Sim, Madley Croft and producer Jamie Smith finished playing to a sea of rapt Coachellans earlier this year, Sim looked so overcome that he had to snap a picture of the crowd.
But that success heralded a huge new problem for them. How does a band play music this slight to many hundreds — and sometimes tens of thousands — of people every night? The 20-year-olds aren't much to watch onstage — Smith's deft sampler playing is the most action you'll see, and the black-clad Sim and Madley Croft rarely part from their microphones. But at the Music Box @ Fonda on Saturday, the xx finally figured out the unlikely thing missing from their miniatures, something that their teenage superstar couple might appreciate: giant lights.
From the opening enormous silhouette of their "X" logo to the capillary-colored beams and radiant strobes behind them, the xx finally made their delicate musical gestures hit live with the same blast of teen lust behind them on record. It makes sense in hindsight — a band with song titles such as "Crystalized," "Infinity" and "Fantasy" seems made for an expressionist stage set that imagined Fritz Lang directing a planetarium.
But more important, with something dazzling to look at, the music itself could now do what it does best — sneak up and bowl you over. The faint house-driven throb of "Night Time" swelled into a small-hours club-land fantasia; "Islands" found the skip of new love in a clatter of digital drumming. The size of a venue like the Music Box articulated their ambient side as well — here the bleary-eyed tone poem "Fantasy" had the breadth of a gathering storm.
Even Sim and Madley Croft seemed to loosen up. As frontman and frontwoman, they don't duet so much as sing in split-screen — there's an odd distance between them even when they swap lines in the same verse. But the xx is starting to behave more like a band, and their reserve and spaciousness create an effect instead of masking a limitation. Smith is the band's silver bullet, and his virtuosic sample-playing could be a blueprint for a whole new way rock bands can incorporate computer-based elements live.
After the torch-song brood of "Infinity," the band left and returned for a one-song encore, the album-closing "Stars. "I can give it all on the first date," Sim sings to open it. The lyric is startling and brave in its sexual vulnerability, and Madley Croft follows up with one of her own: "I can draw a line on the first date / I'll let you cross it, take every line I've got." The lyrics were as close as a new lover's breath on your ear — but behind them, a drape of pinprick white lights filled the black expanse of the stage. Stars, indeed.
Correction: The original version of this post misrepresented the lyrics to the song "Stars." They have been fixed to reflect the proper wording.
Photo: Romy Madley Croft, left, Jaime Smith and Oliver Sim's dreamy songs of heartbreak and obsession have won the xx critical acclaim. Credit: Jack Plunkett / For The Times
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