Matt Taylor reviews Culture Violet, the debut solo album from XY&O’s lead vocalist, Skip Curtis, which sees the artist take a step towards a traditional indie sound.
There’s nothing new about a white man with a guitar. It’s a combination that’s been done a million times before, and no one would be blamed for feeling a little bored of it. Still, this is what makes Skip Curtis’ solo debut all the more impressive; it’s an indie record that should — at least ostensibly — feel tired. Yet it manages to convey energy and freshness in a way that few musicians of Curtis’ stature manage to achieve.
Culture Violet marks the Abercarn-born singer-songwriter’s first LP as a solo artist, having chosen to put his band — XY&O — on the backburner while he pursues his personal music career. Sonically, it’s a change in direction for Curtis — one that sees him move away from his band’s synth-heavy R&B sound towards a more traditional indie vibe. Such a dressing down is hardly novel, but I don’t think anyone listening to this album will think he’s made a mistake.
Curtis’ experience as a producer is apparent in the album’s pacing: it starts mellow and slow with tracks like ‘Messed Up’ and ‘Satellite’, before building to a crescendo with ‘Someone for You’ — the album’s highlight — before winding down into Culture Violet’s fade-out strumming tracks. On a full listen, Curtis manages to transition from acoustic plucking to earworm bops with laidback ease. While the outlook of individual songs may vary, emotional resonance persists; ‘Like You Used To’ packs the biggest of the heartbreak punches with Curtis’ voice softening and hardening with genuine feeling. Its pared-back production — simply Curtis and his guitar — lends its simple lyrics depth and authenticity: ‘you don’t love me like you used to / I love you just the same’.
Culture Violet’s other slow and swooning tracks tend towards the chill and dreamy, sometimes bordering on something like lo-fi. ‘Amber’ offers a sombre moment of reflection — complete with winding guitar solo — with Curtis drawing from a frequent penchant for abstraction as he sings, ‘I’ve seen every side of you / The deep green and the violet blue’. It’s followed by the track ‘Tall Towers / Nature Crawl’ — a sweet and meandering lovesong. These slow-burners lend the record convincing moments of calm; perhaps not every lyric lands, but the general vibe offers a wholesome getaway from the stresses of day-to-day life.
‘Push & Shove’ is a meditative track, raw and honest, offering up an emotional vulnerability that singers of Curtis’ ilk aren’t always comfortable with; lyrically, it tracks the denial and mutual confusion which so often precedes a break up. Closing track ‘Spectre’ — though seemingly concerned with romantic love — offers an unlikely but poignant embodiment of the burnout we’ve all experienced during the pandemic. The parallels are literal — ‘Hiding from the sun / don’t have no complexion’ — but also symbolic — ‘I feel like a vapour fading / you made a spectre of me’. That feeling of fading is one we can all relate to. Collectively, we’ve never felt this way before — how could we have? — a fact which makes ‘Spectre’ comforting in its universality.
As chill as Culture Violet’s slower numbers may be, it’s on the upbeat tracks that Curtis really shines. The aforementioned ‘Someone for You’ is easily the standout track of the whole album, its energy and earnestness — in equal measure — provide an adrenaline rush of pure foot-tapping frivolity. ‘America’ is a beautiful cacophony of heartbeat drums and electric guitars ticking over; ’Joana’ — an irresistible late ’90s pop-punk throwback — is guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser; last, but not least, ‘Sink Into You’ is Culture Violet’s summer bop — a welcome escape from the humdrum of lockdown life.
Though at times discordant, there’s something about Culture Violet that just works. Brimming with summery vibes, it’s — if nothing else — a well-timed debut. Coming out just before what’s set to be a huge summer season, Culture Violet certainly has the potential to make waves. For Curtis, it’s an exciting foray into the solo world, and one that bodes well for his future — whether that’s on his own or with XY&O.
Culture Violet by Skip Curtis is available to stream now on Spotify.
Matt Taylor is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.