Far Nearer: An XL Recordings Retrospective

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On August 25, London-based independent record label XL Recordings commemorated 25 successful years–each more fruitful than the last–as one of the world’s most influential and forward-thinking musical institutions with the release of their double LP compilation album, Pay Close Attention. Curated by Richard Russell (co-founder and current owner of XL) as he was bedridden from a serious disease that completely debilitated his central nervous system, Pay Close Attention is divided in two parts that represent the historical trajectory of the label. The first part deconstructs XL’s roots in underground, innovative dance music; the second explores a new wave of artists on the XL roster who’ve broken the global market with their exciting and idiosyncratic releases.

The label’s initial claim to fame was the release of the Prodigy‘s 1994 sophomore album Music for the Jilted Generation, whose stimulating glitch-and-grime drum ‘n bass music took England by storm when it debuted on the UK charts at number one. At the time, the total number of people staffed by XL could be counted on one hand, and most of them were active DJs and producers who worked both inside and outside the confines of the label. This era can be defined as XL during its infantile stages, when the music released was solely determined by the musical interests of those involved. These guys were in their early to mid-twenties, absolutely enraptured by challenging and progressive iterations of rave and dance, so that’s the kind of music they sought. Before XL Recordings manifested as the fully-fledged, behemoth of an independent record label that they are now–releasing M.I.A.‘s KALA, Adele‘s 21, Radiohead‘s In Rainbows, and Vampire Weekend‘s Contra to name a few–the label experienced a brief shakeup, one that very well may have defined the subsequent fourteen years to follow.

In 2001, XL released the White Stripes‘ third album White Blood Cells while simultaneously re-issuing their first two full-lengths The White Stripes and De Stijl. It’s difficult to substantially explain how radical that sound was at the turn of the century. In some ways it was an extension of and a reaction to the grunge movement that had already capitulated in the mid-nineties, but for the most part the White Stripes were delving much further back into the history of rock ‘n roll, stripping things down and excavating unscathed remnants of gospel and the blues. Two years after White Blood Cells, with four albums already under his belt at 24, Devendra Banhart released the balmy, acid-folk revivalist Cripple Crow on XL. Musically, Banhart was the introspective opiate to Jack White‘s tempestuous amphetamine, but they were seeking inspiration from the same musical touchstones. The taut and wobbly timbre of White’s high-pitched squeal even sounds like Banhart‘s guttural head voice on several of the album’s tracks sang in English.

From here, XL Recordings experienced a snowball effect of massive proportions; 2005 saw the release of cosmopolitan provocateur M.I.A.‘s debut album, the techno dystopian crunch of Arular. The following year Thom Yorke released his debut solo record The Eraser with XL; his band Radiohead would release physical copies of In Rainbows through the label as well their next record The King of Limbs. Around this time Richard Russell began conducting recording sessions with Gil Scott Heron, the founding father of spoken work and the patron saint of music as revolution, which spanned two years into 2009 and was released in 2010 as his first album of original material in sixteen years. That same year, on his 40th birthday, Richard Russell was introduced to Jai PaulThe xx motivated XL to build a small, in-house recording, mixing and mastering studio in 2008 for their self-titled debut. The robust, mind-blowing soul of Adele was first introduced to the world by XL the same year with 19, and three years later she released 21 which bankrolled XL from £3 million to £32 million in hardly the span of 12 months. The most impressive attribute of XL Recordings, as a fixture of mass-appealing independent music, is their generally undefinable eclecticism. No one trend or genre or style of music can be traced to all the acts XL has signed over the past 25 years. But there’s something of an aesthetic grandeur about each artist. Something that distinguishes them as both timely and timeless, original and magnetic to the unassuming ear. In honour of the label’s achievements, we isolated ten acts from the past and present that maintain our unfailing excitement for XL Recordings.

SL2 – “DJs Take Control (Original Version)”

The 1991 breakbeat dance single “DJs Take Control” was first released on SL2‘s  own label Awesome Records and sold 3,500 copies before gaining XL’s undivided attention. It harkens back upon the golden age of rave music, DJ culture, and sampling techniques, where underground electronic dance music fell somewhere between the curious divide that is hip-hop and techno. Play this song dangerously loud, shut your eyes, thrash and you might get a smidgen closer to experiencing this music the way it was intended.

Roy Davis Jr. and Peven Everett – “Gabriel (Live Garage Version)”

If you listen closely to the gaunt synth lines in this 1997 Roy Davis Jr. single, buried beneath walloping bass notes and exuberant horn melodies, you’ll hear traces of acid house and UK garage that have steadily matriculated back into both American and English forms of contemporary electronic dance music. There’s something absolutely lethargic about this tune: a kind of well-paced and sedated groove that’s no longer common among most DJs and producers favoring higher dynamics and drastically increased BPMs. This dance music is best suited for the bedroom.

Bobby Womack – “Please Forgive My Heart”

Earlier this year, Robert Dwayne “Bobby” Womack died in Tarzana, California at the age of 70 after battling several afflicting diseases, among them cancer. For seven decades the legendary soul singer released music that struck a particular chord with audiophiles of all shape and form; his talents were timeless and pure. XL signed Womack late in his career (he was still signed when he passed), but they succeeded in releasing a substantive and masterful piece of music before his departure, 2012’s The Bravest Man In The Universe. The lead single from Womack‘s final LP, “Please Forgive My Heart,” is singular in its emotional verve, as exuberant as it is contemplative and melancholy. Submerged basslines and scattered synth sounds don’t feel ill-fitted or contrived positioned against Womack‘s pleading. Together, the imperfectly old and the perfectly new coalesce as something fierce and sensational.

Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx – “NY Is Killing Me”

In August 2010, nearly six months after the release of Gil Scott-Heron‘s XL debut I’m New Here and his first studio effort in almost two decades, The New Yorker published the article “New York Is Killing Me,” by Alec Wilkinson. This emotionally suffocating piece of journalism framed the uncensored story of Gil Scott-Heron: his diminishing lucidity, his unwavering paranoia and consequent agoraphobia, his active and debilitating crack addiction. The song, along with the rest of the album, was commissioned and co-produced by XL owner Richard Russell, recorded years before Wilkinson’s interviews took place. Time allowed his harrowed musings to further ruminate. Nestled in that small Harlem apartment, smoking himself closer and closer to his eventual demise, the post-humous legacy of “New York Is Killing Me” is all the more agonizing–especially considering the tenacious energy Heron breathes onto this contrapuntal blues breakdown. Gil Scott-Heron died on May 27, 2011 in New York City. The following year, Jamie xx released We’re New Here, appropriating the stark magnificence of Heron‘s vocal work and adorning the thirteen tracks with meticulous and heart-squeezing electronic productions. “NY Is Killing Me” distresses and invades with a haunting exactitude upon the first two measures. The slinky synth lines and wobbly backbone of amorphous bass  are stubborn and strictly business, but Heron is chopped and screwed, fixated on that dark foretelling. He sounds desperate.

QT – “Hey QT”

The collaborative project QT is credited to the explosive and animated production of Sophie, A.G. Cook and an unidentified vocalist only described as “a sparkling future pop sensation.” Their sole release to date, “Hey QT,” is chock full of frenetic EDM brushstrokes and one-two-punch synth attacks. It reminds me of this refrigerator magnet I laughed at yesterday: A cotton candy pink unicorn galloping through the sky, shitting out a steady stream of brightly decorated cupcakes. This track is senseless but splendid.

Ibeyi – “River (Live)”

Born in Cuba and based in Paris, the 19 year-old twin sister duo Ibeyi, Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz, carry on the dynamic legacy of their late father, the famed Latin jazz percussionist Miguel “Anga” Díaz. Their debut EP Oya seeks inspiration from the old soul of Nina Simone, the future-bass aggression of James Blake and the neo-soul musings of Meshell Ndegeocello. Their percussive-heavy and eclectic brand of world music (conceptually informed by ancient lore of the Cuban Yoruba tribe) feels dark and demented, plagued by the travesties and injustices of present-day humanity.

Kaytranada – “Leave Me Alone (feat. Shay Lia)”

Montreal-based electronic producer Kaytranada is one of the most talented and consistently progressive artists in contemporary dance music, only further honing his instantly distinguishable talents with each subsequent release. It’s all about the breakbeat: clever rhythmic cuts and glimmering percussive nuggets that slack sideways and bend backwards. This Shay Lia-assisted banger is the lead single off his forthcoming EP via XL. “It’s definitely going to surprise you,” said Kaytranada of the release during an interview with The Fader. Kay, baby, I’m ready.

FKA twigs – “tw-ache”

Quite possibly the most provocative and buzz-worthy act on the XL roster, FKA twigs sustained the magnanimous hype of 2013’s EP2 and delivered a poignant blow with this year’s LP1. FKA twigs frontwoman Tahliah Barnett and Tom Beard directed this music video for “tw-ache,” a remixed track of “Ache” from her debut, self-released EP1. The track starts off dark and troubled, backed by a series of metronomic rhythmic pulses, before Barnett’s shrill and serrated vocals ease to a softly sloping lull. Barnett stars in the video with a trope of London street performers, who perfectly visualize the disturbed and angular textures conveyed in the mix.

SBTRKT – “Temporary View (feat. Sampha) (Live at BBC Maida Vale)”

Few artists speak for themselves the way English artist-producers SBTRKT and Sampha seem to. This performance of “Temporary View,” from the forthcoming sophomore SBTRKT LP Wonder Where We Land, was recorded at Maida Vale Studios for Zane Lowe’s BBC Radio 1 show. It takes the original studio effort to new and dizzying heights, expounding in a bevy of hyperspace electronica for a mad, exhilarating ride.  

Jungle – “Time”

Jungle‘s full-length self-titled was released through XL earlier this summer, but the midtempo ecstatic grinds of this contemporary London soul outfit have thrilled us for a while now. “Time” is all head voice falsettos and flourishing synth parts, firmly rooted to the past with one foot poised yards ahead.

Angel E. Fraden

Head Editor | DJ | Amateur Rave Maker | Photographer | aef351@nyu.edu / https://soundcloud.com/angelitofraden/ View all post →