IoS pop review: The xx, Guildhall, Portsmouth
Squeeze, Forum, London

The British trio are self-effacing to a fault. Meanwhile, Squeeze can still make a grown man cry

What a strange scenario this is: 2,000 people packed into a civic hall to see a band who aren't actually there.

The xx are absence made flesh. It's a paradoxical trick, but Romy Madley Croft, Jamie Smith and Oliver Sim have become one of the most successful British breakout bands of the decade – toppers of charts, winners of awards, covered by Shakira and Gorillaz, sampled by Rihanna, loved by seemingly every-one – by removing themselves almost entirely from the picture.

Self-effacing, even self-erasing, The xx are that rare, almost oxymoronic beast: a rock band devoid of ego. And that void echoes in their music. Not just in the gaping spaces left inside their sparse, less-is-more arrangements, but in the lyrics too.

In this sense, The xx are the most British of bands, their songs a musical equivalent of a drawing-room drama where muted, minor-key regret reigns and the important stuff is forever unspoken. And the chief players are Romy and Jamie, an uptight, repressed Limey version of Nancy & Lee.

Second album Coexist is marginally superior to the adored xx but will live in its shadow. It's pregnant with the fear of loss. On opener "Angels", which also opens tonight's set, Romy repeats the phrase "They would be as in love with you as I am", the conditional tense hanging in the air. On "Reunion", she muses "If I wait too long, I lose you from my sight, maybe tonight". You find yourself wanting to grab them by the lapels and compel them to sort it out (but where would that leave their muse?). Sometimes, like broken clocks, their thoughts coincide: "Why would you just leave me alone," they ask on "Tides" in uneasy unison, "when we have been close?"

All of which makes them a difficult sell as a live draw. The xx are not a band whose presence on a festival bill would have you crawling over broken glass to get a ticket. Pyrotechnics are not their style, and they don't exactly ooze on-stage charisma, lurking in a diffident blue gloom. Occasionally, Jamie – waistcoated and Brylcreemed – will loom forward, wrapping his microphone cable around his neck, or sing directly into Romy's guitar strings. But it doesn't matter how close he gets: the chasm between them remains. It's that big nothingness we've come to see.

BBC4's wonderful Squeeze night revealed the south-east London legends as having briefly been the least-likely occupants of an Eighties Cocaine Hell this side of Frank Bough. But if it felt weird hearing about them indulging in such rock'n'roll behaviour, that's only because in the three decades since their commercial prime Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have been sanctified by pop history. For all the humanity of their biggest hits, there was a wonderfully unpleasant edge to Squeeze, particularly in the early days of John Cale-produced albums, lurid coloured vinyl singles, and loose affiliations with punk.

Take the offhand callousness of "Cool For Cats" on which Difford, (perhaps in character, perhaps not) delivers the single-entendre "I'm invited in for coffee/And I give the dog a bone". Or the pure filth of holiday memoir "Pulling Mussels from the Shell". Or the audacity of opening a song with the lines: "She was frigid as a Bible when she met her boyfriend Michael." Squeeze were never saints. But, on their half-dozenth comeback, they're welcomed as heroes. Opener "Bang Bang" is given a UK Garage makeover and finale "Goodbye Girl" is turned into a ukulele number, but in between, from a white hot "Annie Get Your Gun" onwards, Difford & Tilbrook don't mess with the formula. And what a formula: a lyricist who chronicles the minutiae of adult British break-ups with a poet's eye (wedding rings left by the soap, suitcases pulled from under the bed) and a singer with one of THE great rock'n'roll voices, a Deptford Lennon weaned on love not bile.

Tasters from forthcoming album Pop Up Shop are received politely, as are solo efforts, but it's the classics everyone wants to hear. The killer is "Up the Junction", one of the few songs that can make me cry. It's the sheer optimism with which the soon-to-be-abandoned narrator makes each sacrifice for his lover and their offspring that breaks the heart. Even the mundanity of the couplet "I got a job with Stanley/He said I'd come in handy" can reduce me to jelly, in a weak moment. You can keep all your Nashville weepies. Squeeze will do for me, all day long.

Critic's Choice

Paul Weller, Emeli Sandé and Miles Kane play a benefit for the homeless charity Crisis, hosted by Ben Elton, at the Hammersmith Apollo, London (Wed). Meanwhile, Motown legend Martha Reeves and the Vandellas play Oran Mor, Glasgow (tonight); Concorde 2, Brighton (Tue); Jazz Café, London (Wed, Thu); Eric's Club, Liverpool (Fri); and The Robin 2, Wolverhampton (Sun 23).

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn