The members of XX Teens are fully aware that their name resembles the junk in your inbox’s spam folder. I also wouldn’t recommend Googling this band while at work. You may have guessed that these guys aren’t John Tesh-style easy listening (but wouldn’t it be great if they were?).
This London group’s debut is chock full of dance-able yet slightly odd art rock that instantly recalls the Fall due mostly to main vocalist Rich Cash’s Mark E. Smith-coping sassy and unmistakably British speak-singing. Rhythm heavily outweighs melody for the group, and driving beats are critical to their formula as is made clear with the album’s first four tracks building from the drum’s ground floor. Often songs are broken down to a skeleton of drums and bass supporting the vocals, and with the bass often distorted many moments here have a Death from Above feel.
Musically, I dig “Onkawara” from its driving stripped-down verses to cooled-off chiming choruses and well-placed guitar flourishes, but Cash’s talking doesn’t add anything to the track for me. I’ve tried to get into the Fall but have trouble for the same reasons, and I almost expect Cash to burst into "Spoilt Victorian child, spoilt Victorian child!" and that song annoys me. The lyrics here tend to be odd or meaningless or both, but Cash is slurring so much you won’t notice.
The music -- not the vocals -- has kept me returning to this disc. XX Teens orchestrate their simple arrangements with stuff you wouldn’t expect to go together. Like when “My Favorite Hat” starts with an 8-bit drum machine beat, the last thing you’d anticipate to join next would be harmonica, but after an initial chuckle I realized it works in some weird way. Sitar twangs melt into the rock groove’s background on “Sun Comes Up” like some punk take on psychedelic-era Beatles. Bits of steel drum sit well with the distorted bass and pumpin’ horn lines on “Darlin’,” a damn solid track. Horns are used effectively as well on “Ba (Ba-Ba-Ba)” from the bari sax bassline to the bridge trumpet/sax harmonies.
“Only You” is the most typical rock track of the set with a fairly pedestrian chord progression but some nice organ throughout and a huge guitar lead to finish. It has more melody than most tracks thanks to Cash actually singing (or is this guitarist Anthony Silvester, credited lyricist for this tune?) but at the risk of him making the transatlantic flight to punch me in the face, I can’t help but think of Brandon Flowers' Springsteen attempts. Other times he does a Glenn Danzig-like bellow (“The Way We Were”), and those are three vocalists (don’t forget the main one, Mark E. Smith) I never thought I’d reference in the same review! Nevertheless, “Only You” is one of the catchiest tracks despite (and perhaps because of) being the most ‘normal.’
I’m split on this album. Instrumentally, XX Teens have great ideas. They balance their artsy weirdness well by not losing sight of the rock and I find myself loosing myself in the beats and grooves of this album. Yet the vocal stylings kept me from loving it completely, but maybe some of you dig someone shouting at you. Not a bad debut and I definitely give them credit for not sounding like much else out there these days.