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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