Alt J Album is a Triumph of Marketing over Music.

Alt-J-An_Awesome_Wave-FrontalAlt J’s debut album An Awesome Wave was favourite for and duly won last year’s Mercury Music prize in the UK. Nothing necessarily wrong with that.

The xx won it in 2010 with their debut (I reviewed their excellent follow-up here), and previous winners include Portishead and P.J. Harvey, the only one so far to have won it twice.

But Alt J were omitted from as many Best Of lists at the end of last year as they were included in.

Their supporters will tell you that that’s because, like Joanna Newsom, the sound that their lead singer makes divides people, Marmite-like, straight down the middle. Enchanting as many as it infuriates.

One of whom, by the bye is the otherwise bullet proof Bob Boilen of NPR’s fab All Songs Considered, the podcast of which I reviewed earlier here.

In reality though, when you do get around to actually listening to the much trumpeted work, it’s crashingly underwhelming. As Gertrude Stein said famously of Oakland California, “there’s no there there”.

It’s perfectly competently produced, and sounds reassuringly slick. And the ubiquitous, propulsive single, “Tessellate” is a jaunty little number that promises much. But, with the exception of the catchy “Matilda”, none of the rest of the album lives up to it.

107974Instead, as the review in Pitchfork suggests here, where it gets a dismissive 4.8, there’s an unmistakable air of fabrication, both to the album and to the band in general.

What we have here in other words is this year’s Mumford and Sons. But in place of the cod authenticity that Mumford use to cloak their vacuity, Alt J rely instead on the projection of a diffident quirkiness. Both add up to the same thing though; the emperor’s new clothes.

And whilst of course there is as much room in this world for manufactured indie boy bands as there is for their pop-idol counterparts, the M(ercury) people really ought to have known better.

You can see the video for the single here. 

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The xx’s Second Album “Coexist” Smoulders.

The xx burst into life in 2009, and their eponymous debut album was many people’s album of the year. Coincidentally, like Hot Chip and Four Tet, they too are graduates of the Elliott comprehensive school in Putney, in London. Though apparently, that’s all it is.

At that time they were a foursome, but by the time they won the Mercury Prize in 2010 they’d “decided” to become a threesome.

That success and the wave of public and critical acclaim that it ushered in saw their music make the by now traditional journey into the movies, games and ads circuit.

So it’s a tad surprising that their follow-up, Coexist should make its way in to the public arena so very quietly. Or perhaps that’s just a reflection of that invariably difficult second album syndrome.

As the boys from Pravda ask in their review, giving it an appreciative 7.5 here, do you refine what you’ve already done, or head off in a new direction?

They’ve gone with the former, and the paired and stripped down lo-fi sound of their debut has if anything been even further reduced. According to Jamie xx, who stands behind the front pair manning the drums and twiddling the nobs (and who recently teamed up with Gil Scott-Heron for the justly lauded We’re New Here album), they’d intended giving their second effort more of a clubbable vibe.

But the only one of the tracks on Coexist that you could ever imagine surfacing on the dance-floor is “Swept Away”.

What you get instead is a seductively evocative nighttime cityscape that’s less CinemaScope than it is draped in neon. Think Stuart Staples dueting with Tracey Horn on an off-shoot of 4AD.

Too danceable to be conventionally chill-out, but not enough to be fully clubbable, it occupies instead its own unique spot. And that’s what the xx and this album have that’s so satisfyingly seductive; their own sound.

If you missed them first time around, here’s your chance to catch up. And you can see them perform the single “Angels” from the album on the Jools Holland show here. 

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