Putting an Exclamation Point in Parenthesis with the XX and Young Marble Giants

The XX and Young Marble Giants

Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

The London-based trio the XX released their second album, Coexist, this week. Like 2009's xx, it's a subtle, quiet record -- focused on silence more than sound, implying parts of its songs rather than stating them, and built around the band members' murmuring voices and eloquent pauses. Put it next to another rock album, and it's clearly doing the same sort of thing -- just in a minimalist way. (Here's the similarly understated video for its first single, "Angels": a shifting color pattern, like the kind seen on Coexist's cover.)

When XX appeared, more than a few people mentioned an obvious antecedent for the XX's sound: the short-lived but wonderful band Young Marble Giants, who made a single album in 1980 before dispersing, but whose pin-drop-on-marble sound has been echoing ever since. Brothers Stuart and Phil Moxham and singer Alison Statton formed the band in 1979 in Cardiff, Wales; their album was called Colossal Youth. In the context of the punk and post-punk era's louder-harder-faster aesthetic, Young Marble Giants' exclamation-point-in-parentheses sound was not just thrilling but shocking. Here's a performance of "Credit in the Straight World" from one of their final shows of their original incarnation, from late 1980 -- and note that this was one of their loudest songs.

Which is not to say that YMG didn't hit hard, in their way. The last single they released as a trio was 1981's "Final Day": barely more than a minute and a half long, just Statton's voice, a high note on an organ, clipped keyboard and guitar parts, and an unforgettable vision of apocalypse.

After Statton left the band, the Moxham brothers made one more instrumental Young Marble Giants EP, Testcard, in 1981. Here's "Sporting Life" from it.

Stuart Moxham, who'd been YMG's main songwriter, started a new band, the Gist, who released a string of singles and an album between 1981 and 1983. (One song on the album, Embrace the Herd, featured all three Giants.) One of their career highlights was their single "Love at First Sight." It's not quite as stripped-to-the-bone as Young Marble Giants had been, but it's still on the more reserved side of what pop was like in the early '80s.

Stuart drifted away from music in the mid-'80s, and worked as an animator for a while (the invaluable Young Marble Giants site Cardiffians notes that he worked on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). A few years later, the French pop singer Étienne Daho had a hit with his version of "Love at First Sight," rewritten (with radically different French lyrics) as "Paris, Le Flore."

After YMG split up, Philip Moxham played bass with Everything but the Girl for a few years; he's part of the band on this 1985 live clip of "This Love."

Alison Statton started a post-YMG band of her own, Weekend, with guitarists Simon Booth and Spike Williams; they were looser and jazzier than the Giants had been, with a perpetually shifting lineup. Here's some splendid 1982 footage of them playing a few songs, beginning with "Past Meets Present."

In 1989, Statton made an album called The Prince of Wales, the first of two she recorded with guitarist Ian Devine; one of its highlights is a subdued acoustic cover of New Order's frenetic new wave dance hit "Bizarre Love Triangle."

Five years later, the Australian band Frente! had a college radio hit with a version of "Bizarre Love Triangle" that owed rather a lot to Statton and Devine's.

By the early '90s, in fact, there was a subcultural surge of interest in Young Marble Giants and their legacy. Stuart Moxham released a handful of new albums (including one that Spike Williams played on: the group's circle was always fairly tight). There was talk of an all-star YMG tribute album; that never happened, but there's been a long string of (generally much louder) covers of their songs. One lesser-known but fine one was the Australian band Toys Went Berserk's version of "Brand-New-Life."

Belle and Sebastian's 2003 techno-funk cover of "Final Day" is more or less sacrilege, but loving sacrilege.

The most-heard Young Marble Giants cover, though, has to be Hole's full-on grunge reading of "Credit in the Straight World"; here they are playing it live in 1994.

After several unsuccessful attempts, the original lineup of Young Marble Giants reunited in the late 2000s for a handful of live shows, and they still play the occasional festival performance (the footage below is the group playing "N.I.T.A." at the ATP festival this past March). In the era of the XX, maybe the world's a bit readier for them.