[This is a review of their Sunday show at the Wiltern, the second of two sold-out shows in LA last weekend. For a slideshow by photographer Timothy Norris of their Saturday show at the Music Box, click here.]
Last Sunday at the Wiltern, the xx opened their set from behind a gauzy curtain, their signature letter(s) projecting onto said scrim and causing the formerly docile audience to get loud, really loud – not the reaction you might expect for a band who so heavily favors quiet.
The screen then turned translucent, the light revealing only three flickering silhouettes, the sound revealing the smartly minimal soundtrack to that one Olympics commercial (where Apolo Ohno skates a rink in half because AT&T is awesome.)
But given that the young trio weaves musical stories that are almost uncomfortably intimate, that glorified sheet actually provided a welcome, if temporal, barrier between audience and music.
Their opener should take notice. I saw Phantogram a couple of months ago at the Mercury Lounge in Goleta, before they began touring with the xx. It seems all that practice is helping ease their awkwardness, though the duo remain slightly uncertain on how to engage an audience.
With a blunt haircut, fishnets, and latex leg-warmers, part-time anime hottie Sarah Barthel provided a brief, “Hi, we're Phantogram, and we're from New York” – an introduction that, given their look and images of the city being projected behind them, did not, at first, seem necessary. But while their music echoes some of the city's historic penchant for minimalism, it matches none of its gritty desolation. Their music is simple, seductive, trip-hoppy bedroom stuff – not particularly fascinating except for Sarah's lovely, breathy vocals floating dreamily above her keys, alongside some Macbook-assisted drums and bandmate Josh Carter's guitar reverb. It's good, but the headliner does minimalism so, so much more convincingly.
The xx's record feels like listening to a cute English couple break and make up eleven times, which on first listen I found annoying. Really, if I wanted to hear excuses like “Can I make it better / with the lights turned on?” I'd break out another type of ex-ex (my little black book of ex-boyfriends.) But, after about a thousand listens, I fell in lust with the xx's sparse formula of drum kit, breathy exchanges, and sexy bass lines.
So as the curtain dropped and “Intro” faded into “Crystalised,” I was a little shocked to find my preconceptions proved inaccurate. It's rude, and not actually relevant to any sort of meaningful musical criticism, but — they're not cute. Bad haircuts, tacky jewelry, and post-Goth'90s aesthetics I got over, but what I really craved was any indication that the songs are truth, are diary entries, are sexy windows into heartbroken souls. I found myself fixating not on Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft's breathy exchanges or guitar work, but on their eyes, hoping for a glimmer of revelatory emotion.
Mostly, I got nothing. The disconnect between their album and live show is actually really interesting, in particular because it throws in a third member and because the straight-faced trio hardly interact at all, barely acknowledging the audience any more than they do each other. But on “Night Time” I finally caught Romy and Oliver in some sideways glances, and maybe even a smile, as the song transformed from the usual minimalism into a seductive club beat.
Still, watching them recreate this sound live, in a tightly packed space, feels even more voyeuristic than earbuds in, home alone. And if I feel awkward listening from the comfort of anonymity, I imagine that third member is miserable up on stage. Poor Jamie Smith, lurking behind a turntable and drum kit set-up, is more attractive than the other two, but his facial expressions most often suggest “FML.” Cheer up, lonely drummer bro, you quietly rock.
Or maybe not rock, but gently roll, providing perfect reproductions of the recorded album despite some technical difficulties. And with music this soft, I'm not sure I needed the audience feverishly providing drunken backing vocals, but it's interesting to see the band react to such an outpouring of devotion – or rather, not react, because they have absolutely no idea what to do with the attention. But, like good elementary school teachers, they don't try to overpower the noisy troublemakers. Instead, they smartly grow more quiet, collected, and lovely, letting their soft sound lull the crowd into submission. Perfection.