Alex and the XO’s is an alt-rock band from Normal, Ill., the most delightfully self-conscious name for a mid-American suburb this New Englander has ever heard. The cover of their eponymous album, adorned with a cartoon vignette of some abandoned Midwestern bungalow (framed by stalks of wheat and inlaid with an emblem in the shape of Illinois, no less), suggests that the “normalcy” from where they sprung––though they tout it proudly––has become untenable. What’s more, this bungalow is a duplex, featuring two dark front doors hanging open, two non-intersecting paths leading out. Heartbreak, perhaps? Lost love set against the stark hues of a crumbling American dream? Yes, we find ourselves awake yet again in that eternally fruitful garden of adolescent discontent: the ‘burbs.
The music itself, however, doesn’t communicate a loss of innocence so much as great enthusiasm and a lightly charming naiveness. Alex and the XO’s begins with “Honestly,” a poppy, tuneful, indie-pop affair which immediately introduces the following: a.) frontwoman and guitarist Alex Fisher’s warm, dulcet, all-American pipes, b.) the simple, rich, strummed alt-pop chords that graced the radio in your mom’s car on the way to the first day of 5th grade c.) the album’s squeaky clean production, and finally, drawing together all of these things, d.) the band’s happy-go-lucky desire to please. They take a few cues from the more mainstream emo-derivative acts of the 2000s (Dashboard Confessional, etc.), with a highly general, confessional patchwork of lyrics (“Honestly”). In the first track alone, we get, “The heat is rising, honestly, honestly / my heart is aching, honestly, honestly,” and “You want to shake it for a little while,” and “You’ve already wanted to run out of time.” This “already wanting,” admittedly, is potentially interesting if convoluted prefix to the “We’re running out of time,” but only if you make time to tease out its knotted implications––which Alex and the XO’s don’t do, instead skipping along on their merry, mellifluous way.
The band doles out a decent bit of variety––in tempo and mood––as the album settles in. The featured track, “Answer Me” is bookended by washy, down-tempo passages, and it segues neatly into the slow-burner, “Distance,” which makes use of that well-worn melodramatic trope in the duet chorus with intertwining male/female perspectives. Fisher croons, “I knew when you were due some distance,” while her husky-throated counterpart calls, “We’re not the same / We’ll break.” It comes across sort of like a breakup scene from an emo-lite musical for pre-teens. Guiltily, I kind of like it. This more measured, angst-forward side of Alex and the XO’s (also indulged on “Make Sure”) hints of a distant debt to the languid and pensive suburban melodrama of American Football, or quieter moments of Sunny Day Real Estate. But where American Football was notable for soundtracking the un-self-conscious flowering of teenage sentimentality––its private, august reflections––Alex and the XO’s invocations of young-adult relationship strain can sometimes feel a little too public, like a diary entry written for a school project. The lyrics are too cursory, the format too predictable, the palette too glossy and eager-to-please to conjure bona fide intimacy. Though they borrow from the emo lexicon and display a textural, post-rock sensibility at times, the intention and result is unfailingly that of presentation and broad appeal, group experience over the private or the idiosyncratic. I suppose this is merely to say that it’s pop music. That said, one could look at this packaging of emotional experience as the goal of a pop record: cleaning up the mess of emotional experience, converting private feelings into communal, dance-able catharsis.
This album continues to grow into into itself as it spins. The back-half tunes “Patience” and “Barricade” showcase the band’s most tightly-wound and emphatic combination of emo-pop sensibility and uptempo, technically formidable rock. Both songs are lushly produced, dense with musical ideas, and executed with precision, exhibiting shades of Bloc Party’s excellent debut Silent Alarm (the chorus on “Patience” bears some resemblance to Bloc Party’s “Helicopter,” albeit minus that brilliant, syncopated rhythmic hook). Alex and the XO’s are at their best in this mode, injecting the charm of suburban indie-pop with deceptively adroit musicality.
On that score, there are moments of laudable technical skill here. Fisher’s vocals are confident, and she shines when belting in her upper registers. Bassist Storm Angone’s playing is uncommonly melodic and rich with embellishment, including trills and nimble diatonic runs––though the bass is neglected in the mix and its tone is often plasticky, leaving a persistent hollow space in the lower frequencies. Album closer “Send Me All Your Love” even allows the lead guitar to indulge itself with an out-of-nowhere progression of neatly articulated, baroque sounding arpeggios beneath the verse, and an encore in the outro. It’s a somewhat bewildering and unrepresentative way to ring out the album––but, yeah, I guess it was pretty cool.
This is an enjoyable, well-executed, unpretentious, family-friendly, locally-grown pop-rock record featuring solid performances from all members of the group. The songs are pleasing, palatable, melodic; the collection is diverse and well-paced. The only reservations towards it stem from the band’s slapdash lyricism and overwhelming inoffensiveness. It’s music made to excite and please, not to explore or challenge. But perhaps I shouldn’t fault the band for that. If the video for “Honestly” is any indication, then as I sit here on a Greyhound bus beneath iron skies, wearily wrapping up a review of their new record, Alex and her companions are out frolicking in some sunny cul de sac, lacing each others’ cherubic mugs with silly string. More power to them. For fans of earnest, melodic, guitar-driven indie-pop, Alex and the XO’s have made a gratifying record with nods to emo and post-rock, considerable musicianship, and bright-eyed charm in spades.