Since catching fire on the heels of their 2009 debut album, the XX has grown into a blue-chip act that's been forced to reconcile a trademark sound driven by intimacy and understatement with big-tent headliner status. Considering the swath of empty seats and floor space for Sunday night's show at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, it's hard to not wonder if the group's ascent has finally reached a point of diminishing returns.
Though the stage setup—which featured rotating pylons lined with mirrors and multi-colored strobe lights, along with a light-up subfloor best described as disco Tron—felt essential in bolstering the hangdog presence of vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, it begs the question of whether they're playing venues of this size because they sincerely hope to sell them out, or purely because they're less likely to get a return on such a mammoth investment at a place like the Crystal Ballroom.
The dissonance of small songs served on massive stages was the driving force of the show, and the biggest trap for older material. The chiming guitars and crooning of the Pat Benatar-esque opener "Say Something Loving" shined in vibrant Technicolor, but the ensuing one-two punch of fan favorites "Crystalised" and "Islands" fell flat. The stark minimalism of the arrangements was soured by the sound of producer Jamie Smith's canned beats bouncing off the empty space in the back of the arena.
Tracks from the XX's latest, I See You, were given more thoughtful treatment, with the sultry whoa-oh-oh chorus of "I Dare You" and the accompanying orange hues on the lighting rig feeling tailormade for the vaunted golden-hour sets of Coachella. It was a serene moment where the balance of hushed tones and grand romance worked wonderfully, but also a point at which the set pivoted from crystalline renditions of their spotless album work to an hamfisted dance medley of tracks like "Fiction" and "Shelter."
Prior to the mess of club beats and strobes, the beautiful friction between ambition and closeness reached its denouement on "Brave For You," in which Croft adeptly sums up the reluctance of fame surrounding such a personal body of work: "So I will be brave for you/
Stand on a stage for you/ Do the things that I'm afraid to do/I know you want me to." It's hard to slight a trio of shy art-school kids for taking aim at festival domination at they grow into themselves, but the reticent charm that first drew fans to the XX is now in the rearview as they press on as a consummate touring band with a bottom line to adhere to.
All photos by Sam Gehrke.