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Various Artists - XL Recordings: Pay Close Attention

"XL Recordings: Pay Close Attention"

Release date: 25 August 2014
XL Recordings Pay Close Attention
28 August 2014, 13:30 Written by Erik Thompson
To say that the songs aren’t really what matters on XL Recordings: Pay Close Attention entirely contradicts the rigorous scrutiny that the title of the compilation demands. But when taking a look back at the legendary English record label’s past 25 years, the artistic statement made by releasing this collection isn’t about the hits that fill every side of the comp—because we’ve all heard them before—or even the high-profile bands and musicians who created them. Pay Close Attention ultimately is a celebration of the forward-thinking people behind XL and how their specific, refined tastes has helped consistently push music in thrilling new directions from one decade to the next.

Like the roster and catalog of the label itself, Pay Close Attention is expertly curated as well. The first part of the compilation focuses on underground dance music made for DJs, while the second half shifts towards the wealth of rock and pop hits that the tastemaking indie label has released. The title is drawn from the Prodigy’s 1992 electro-fueled jam, “Out Of Space,” which repeatedly samples Kool Keith insisting we “Pay close attention.” It ends up serving as an accurate catch-all for this compilation as well as the creative aims of the label itself. Founder Richard Russell’s—along with early partners Tim Palmer and Nick Halkes—careful observation of how the music world was changing helped the scene evolve in directions that might never have been possible without XL’s support and encouragement.

The dance half of the comp appropriately gets started with London breakbeat ravers, SL2, who— along with the Prodigy—effectively helped put the fledgling Beggars Banquet offshoot on the musical map. And based on the initial success of SL2’s dancefloor filler, “DJs Take Control” (which kicks off this collection) XL never really looked back, releasing successful singles and records that epitomized the pulse of the flourishing rave and techno scene, including the Prodigy’s chart-topping albums, Music For The Jilted Generation and The Fat Of The Land. The wise inclusion of somewhat unheralded acts like Awesome 3 (“Don’t Go”), Liquid (“Sweet Harmony”), and Jonny L (“Piper”), gives the first part of this compilation a smooth, club-like feel, while also illuminating just how fluidly the dance scene transformed from breakbeat to hardcore techno, from industrial house to jungle. The creative lines were certainly as blurred as the vision of your typical late night ravers, and XL Recordings were there to capture the pioneering sound of it all.

Pay Close Attention also brings things full circle at the end of the first half of the compilation, showing how dance music’s sound and scene had progressed by the turn of the century. The styles and techniques changed considerably in the innovative hands of Basement Jaxx (“Jump ‘N Shout”), Dizzee Rascal (“I Luv You”), and SBTRKT (“Wildfire”), while Jamie xx’s “All Under One Roof Raving,” contains a nostalgic wistfulness towards an uninhibited dance and club scene that was celebrated at the start of the collection. While no one label could perfectly encapsulate an entire scene or sound, especially one as rapidly changing as the electronic dance scene was and continues to be, the first half of XL’s compilation does a great job showing just how vital and involved the label was in what was happening in the vibrant clubs throughout Europe and the world at the time.

The second half launches, fittingly, with the Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” a worldwide smash hit that brought both the band and the record label international acclaim. The fitful track shifts the focus towards XL’s more commercial—but still innovative— leanings, including ubiquitous crowd-pleasers by the White Stripes (“Seven Nation Army”), M.I.A. (“Paper Planes”), and Adele (“Rolling In The Deep”). If there is one complaint that could be levied against Pay Close Attention, it would be that the deeper cuts on some of these chart-topping records aren’t represented, and they instead went with the all-too-obvious choice. But then up comes the In Rainbows sonic oddball, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” and those criticisms are rightly nullified.

Peaches’ naughty anthem, “Fuck The Pain Away” is included, in case any listener wasn’t fully paying attention after “Firestarter,” while Ratatat’s “Seventeen Years” shows just how seamlessly the dance world of the first half of the collection can blend with the rock section of the second half. But the three song run of Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser,” Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York Is Killing Me” and Radiohead’s aforementioned gem all tackle issues of isolation and creative redemption in the modern day world, and anchor the creative flow of the comp’s second disc.

The end of the collection features the brazen sonic mélange of Tyler, The Creator (“Yonkers”), the Horrors (“Sea Within A Sea”), the xx (“Angels”), Vampire Weekend (“Step”), and King Krule (“Easy Easy”), a relative hodgepodge of disparate artists that shouldn’t coalesce on either the same compilation or a shared record label roster. But the fact that it does so boldly and naturally is a testament to XL Recordings and their expert ear for musical talent and innovation.

The venerable, tastemaking label may have been paying attention long before us, but we’re all listening now.

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