Two months ago, twin brothers Jeff and Jacob Turner led the local band XO through a dazzling spectacle of sounds and visions that played out on a translucent screen at one of Atlanta's most intimate music venues. With their presence concealed on stage, the star of the show was the blast of abstract images that flashed like synapses exploding in a lucid dream. The boom of programmed beats and larger-than-life guitar resonance permeated the smoke-filled air, producing a noise that teetered between pop elation and distress. Through it all, the ghostly outline of four players — the Turner brothers, third guitarist Marshall "Do" (pronounced Doe) Applewhite and bass player Hunter Lee — were barely visible as they slumped over their instruments, bobbing their heads to the music.
It was a sensory-jamming experience built on pure impressionism — not the kind of show one would expects from a couple of guitarists known for slashing away on stages with Los Angeles pop-punk pretty boys Say Anything.
"Instead of having people look at me and my shoes, and at how weird I play my guitar, and how strangely I sing — anything that people can possibly judge me on, which they do, and I'm slightly insecure about it — I wanted to create a format where the rest of the band and I could feel comfortable, and give people an image of what we want them to see," says Jeff Turner.
If music is supposed to be a cathartic escape from life's daily grind, an act driven by such abstraction is a far cry indeed from the pining, confessional anthems Jeff and Jacob play at Say Anything's arena-sized emo shows.
Though it wasn't the first time that XO had performed for an audience, last May's show at 529 in East Atlanta Village was a radical new beginning for the band. In the two years since the Turner brothers had released XO's Some Day EP, which had been written and recorded between Say Anything tours, Jeff had become infatuated with the lush, ethereal melodies and woozy ecstasy heard on My Bloody Valentine's 1991 album Loveless. The slow shifts in and out of rhythm and drone were like nothing he'd heard before and he wanted to get his head around it. The power chord chamber-pop quality of Jimmy Eat World's Clarity and Built to Spill's Keep It Like a Secret also affected him.
"I listened to those records and thought, 'What happens to a song to make it sound like that?'" Jeff says. Soon he met with engineer Matt Malpass and began recording Some Day. "I realized that there's so much more to music than just pretty-sounding guitars and nice vocals, and I talked Matt's ear off, like, 'We have to listen to these recordings and figure out how to make it sound like a hybrid of both of them.' I didn't care if anyone liked it, I just wanted to hear it."
The resulting six songs are bound by the same blaring vocals and clean-scrubbed production that marks the Say Anything albums on which the Turners appear (2007's In Defense of the Genre and the self-titled 2009 album).
What sets the EP apart, however, is the urbane quality that takes shape on "Blizzard," "Love" and "Some Day." Each song embraces subtler, more poetic language and imagery that transcends blatant lyrical pining. The first self-pressed batch of 1,000 copies quickly sold out at Say Anything shows, and the EP was soon repressed by Jackie Darling Records. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Two recent demo songs that have appeared on the group's Facebook and Bandcamp pages, titled "Death" and "Helll," intimate a sensuality that's worlds apart from the group's beginnings but still rooted in the same DNA. An unnaturally clean hue envelopes the slurred guitar arrangements that stretch out in a barreling wall of noise. When Jeff screams, "I don't have to die, you don't have to die, we don't have to die," on "Death," there's a cryptic message about living forever encoded in the barrage of images. "If you live a life that has an impact on people, like Einstein for example, if you do things that help humanity, then you're never really going to die," Jeff says.
But the songs can be about whatever the listener brings to them. That's what gives life to XO's balanced songwriting and onstage experimentation. The music and visuals are delivered with an amorphous punch that eclipses the emotional scope of anything the Turners have ever played with Say Anything. And that leaves a much deeper mark than pretty guitars and nice vocals.