XOXOK EP Release Show
Saturday, May 11, 8 p.m., free
The Station, Carrboro
In the acknowledgments section of Keenan Jenkins’s psychology dissertation, a study of how prejudice is confronted in social situations, he thanks the usual suspects—his PhD advisers at UNC-Chapel Hill, his research assistants, his friends and family—and then signs off, “XOXO K,” a five-letter forecast of what was to follow. Even before he finished his dissertation, he was eager to get started on his music in earnest.
Squash the space between the O and the K and you get Jenkins’s musical moniker, XOXOK, the project he’s devoted himself to since graduating three years ago. Now his postgrad efforts have come to fruition with the recent self-release of the Worthy EP, which has a May 11 release show at The Station in Carrboro. XOXOK seems to have skipped the “self-recorded lo-fi” stage where so many independent artists begin. Worthy was recorded at BNB Audio in Chapel Hill and mastered by Nick Petersen of Track & Field studios (perhaps best known for mastering Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago).
Worthy is a pristine EP of soul-and-jazz-inflected alternative rock. Though opener “Nancy, M.D.” begins with Jenkins’s voice crooning as if from a cheap radio, all high-end and crackly distortion, resounding drums, echoing background vocals, with shimmering guitar soon cutting cleanly in, forming a lush background against which Jenkins projects his dramatic vocals. And although the songs are structurally simple—both “Mitt” and the title track are essentially based around two chords—they are filled with swoops, crests, and calms that lend the record an exceptional dynamism.
Largely absent from Worthy is the linear (and all-too-common) songwriting technique of progressively introducing instrument after instrument to form a steady crescendo. XOXOK’s songs rise and fall and rise again—not necessarily in that order. The jazzy power pop of “Flaws,” carried by Jenkins’s melodious croon, breaks down into a subdued, atmospheric bridge that gradually builds up and then collapses once more into the gentle ambiance of the interlude “Cluster.”
The fully formed quality of XOXOK’s debut belies the long and winding road leading to it. Jenkins, who hails from Rocky Mount, had been harboring musical aspirations since his undergraduate dorm room days, also at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I always thought that every guy and woman in my college dorm who was playing guitar all had some thought of, ‘Oh wow, what if I could do music, like, full time, all the time?’” Jenkins says. “I imagined that everyone felt that way, but that it was just a matter of who was going to really do it or not.”
By 2015, Jenkins had grown weary of his academic trajectory. “I was like, well, music is what I care about, so I’m going to finish [the PhD] as quickly as I can and start trying to perform right now,” he says. If he had previously considered a career in psychology, music now became his primary concern. That year, he began honing his songs and playing solo shows throughout the Triangle, all the while contemplating what (and who) he would like the studio recordings to sound like. He’s unabashed about his sonic inspirations.
“I’m always trying to make a Jeff Buckley song,” he said. “And I’m failing. But I’m always trying to make something that sounds like he would have done it.” A few days after we spoke, he emailed me a Nick Hakim song he wished he could make.
But despite Jenkins’s honesty about emulating other artists, the five tracks on Worthy are distinct in their own right. The sources of the textures might be traceable—the confident falsetto of Moses Sumney, the smooth riffing of Jeff Buckley—but the songs never veer into mere mimicry. With the EP finally finished and out in the world, after lengthy preparation (some of the lyrics were written years apart), Jenkins has cause to celebrate.
“I’m so proud of this record,” he says. “I’m proud of the work everyone did on it. I’m proud of the work I did on it.” While the name XOXOK may have started as a bittersweet valediction, Worthy is a salutation and a forceful one at that.
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