Tag Archives: James Blake

James Blake ‘Overgrown’ – Review

28 Apr

 

 

Second album syndrome is a serious condition. Symptoms include a lack of focus, a reliance on familiar sounds alongside a rash grab bag approach to new ones, rushed production, and songs about touring. It mainly affects rock groups but, as James Blake fans have just discovered, it can blight the music of cool, post-dub step mopes as well.

But before we get to the negative, let’s focus on the positive. I was a big fan of Blake’s 2010 self titled debut; it was smart, nuanced, emotive and brushed with innovative production details. I was an even bigger fan of his numerous e.ps, which often bypassed his mellow tendencies and aimed straight for the hips. The new album finds an interesting home somewhere between these two points. ‘Voyeur’ for example begins like many songs on the debut but soon spirals into a full on dance banger, with raving synths and pounding beats. ‘Digital Lion’ starts off as a chugging, directionless dirge but breaks down into a proper Industrial House song – the dust is practically shivered off by a throbbing beat straight from some German warehouse. Best of all is ‘Retrograde’: here the dance bit doesn’t sound welded on at the end, it’s a natural fit for Blake, and it’s the only time on the album he’s truly successful when playing with a new style. The chords are pure gospel, the treatment of them is totally 21st century.

The title track reminds you instantly what Blake does best. His voice flickers like a candle, but its unreliability and vulnerability is used as a strength. This is the most emotionally naked we’ve seen him, as he ponders his position in the public sphere. ‘I don’t want to be a star but a stone on the shore’ he decides, settling on something solid and permanent rather than a bright, abstract and ultimately unreachable object. Elsewhere he’s concerned with distance, particularly the distance between him and his girlfriend. ‘Part time love is the life we lead’ he moans, referencing the lack of time they have to spend together, whilst elsewhere he sings ‘We waited too long, we’re back to square one.’

Sometimes Blake has a new tendency to be vague and indecisive which makes many of these songs impenetrable. it’s a massive shame as the biggest strength of the debut was definitely his ability to smack you in the face with a blunt and brilliant lyric and then repeat it until you had it spinning in your head. ‘The Wilhelm’s Scream’ was made up entirely of the line ‘I don’t know about my dreaming anymore / all that I know is I’m falling, falling, falling – might as well fall.’ Another song (I forget which) revolved simply around the line ‘My brother and my sister don’t speak to me – I don’t blame them’. Ok, this wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I adored the simplicity and bravery of these songs. Strangely, many of the tracks on ‘Overgrown’, whilst being longer and more detailed, actually feel less complete and less nuanced. He’ll sing a verse, then a chorus, then just repeat it in the same bland way adding nothing to the delivery.

Easily though, the biggest flaw of the album is the lack of memorable tunes. His debut worked well as a cohesive whole but it also had a handful of stand-alone classics like ‘Lindisfarne’ and ‘Limit to Your Love’. I’ve listened to the new album countless times now but the only song I would be able to hum is ‘Retrograde’. The other tracks, even the ones I like, fail to leave a lasting impression. I hate to say it but I can now see where the critics (who have been strong in number since the beginning) are coming from. Blake is just too damn miserable for his own good, which has resulted in a lethargic, dreary and underwhelming sophomore album. The likes of ‘DLM’ and ‘To the Last’ just melt into the background which is ultimately where the whole album belongs.

On the cover of his debut, Blake (shot in a blue light) appeared out of focus in a bewildering, inviting way – as if a strange fog had taken over his body and melted his features. On the new album the blue fog is still there in the background but Blake is standing in the foreground with a pretentious, artsy, smug look on his face, arms crossed. It’s ironic then that after stepping out of the fog Blake should suddenly sound considerably more out of focus. Lets hope it’s only second album syndrome and not something more career threatening.

5.5/10

 

 

James Blake ‘James Blake’ – Review

9 Feb

It’s hard to think of another artist who has covered so much ground before even releasing their debut album. From his acclaimed  remixes of dub-step pioneers to the sampled based ‘CMYK’ e.p and the piano-centric ‘Klavierwerke’ e.p, James Blake has been consistently interesting and quietly ground breaking. Obviously that means a lot is riding on this debut album and it’s probably bound to disappoint some people who think they know what to expect. If there is one thing I learnt about James Blake from those e.ps it’s to expect the unexpected.

Firstly I was surprised at how song centric the album is; the second third of the record barely features any production wizardry at all and there is an abundance of humable tunes. ‘Give Me My Month’, ‘To Care Like You’ and ‘Why Don’t You Call Me’ are short piano pieces that will make or break the album for many people. Personally, they are the album’s highlights but to many dub-step purists who enjoyed the ‘CMYK’ e.p these tracks may come as an unwelcome change of direction. ‘I Mind’ comes the closest to sounding like the James Blake of old but that song aside there really isn’t that much here that could be considered dub-step. Still, the genre’s influence is all over the album, from the cut and paste editing to the click track beats, James Blake knows where he’s coming from but he knows where he’s going as well.

Blake brilliantly captured a sense of tension and paranoia on the song ‘CMYK’ through his blending of high pitched r&b samples and jittery beats. Here he tries to re-capture that tension on ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ by using his own vocals as the sample. It works to an extent; the song basically revolves around the line ‘My Brother and my sister don’t talk to me and I don’t blame them’ which is sung by Blake with resonating sincerity and heartbreak. Over the course of the song the line gets diced, distorted, and played with in every which way so that at one point there are several Blakes (some electronically manipulated, some authentic) all fighting with each other in a battle between the real and the unreal,the future and the past etc. Your allowed to concentrate on these ideas because basically the song just repeats the same motif for four minutes.

As I say, it works to an extent. Whilst I can see the merits in him playing with the words until all possible understandings and interpretations have been dissected from them, ultimately I think a little more depth would have been beneficial. What has the singer done for his brother and sister not to talk to him? Why doesn’t he blame them? These are questions Blake deliberately leaves unanswered, and I don’t have a problem with that, but I do wonder if the song is just underdeveloped rather than understated. ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, Measurements’ and ‘Unlock’ – actually most of the album – works in the same way, positive repetition is the most notable trait of ‘James Blake’. I think the extent to which you get on board with Blake’s lyrical approach will be determined by whether you believe that less is more and whether you think he is being restrained and concise or just a bit lazy.

‘Lindisfarne’ is more traditionally structured lyrically, as is the album highlight ‘Limit To Your Love’ which is also the most tuneful thing on here. I was never a big fan of the song when I first heard it, the white boy soul and minimal arrangement was a bit too MOR for me, but I like it more and more every time I hear it. Heard through headphones, the rippling bass and heartfelt vocals really jump out whilst the silence inbetween the verse and chorus sounds even more chilling and unexpected in the album’s context.

James Blake has tried to make a sort of  ‘singer-songwriter’ album; a record that is powerful and emotionally resenting in the same way as, for example, Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma Forever Ago’. However, it’s too slight and delicate to work on those terms. It’s also too considered; Bon Iver’s album was so effecting because of the brutal and direct honesty, it was just him and his guitar, whereas you get the impression that Blake has spent months crafting and shaping this album – it kind of sounds simple but it also sounds like he’s spent an awful lot of time and effort making it sound simple. Instead ‘James Blake’ works most successfully as a late night, post-club, mood album; one that is moving yet slightly disarming at the same time. This is a dreamy, ambiguous, haunting, and almost futuristic record that takes the key traits of the singer songwriter style and places them in a new context.

We have now established that not only is James Blake an accomplished DJ, producer, pianist and singer but he’s also a pretty snappy tunesmith as well. This album is a slightly confused amalgamation of all these things, which means it’s a great album but a sporadically great one. ‘How full on to watch you grow’ he sings at one point – James Blake is an artist who has grown up musically in public over the past couple of years and this album suggests he still has a lot of growing to do. He is one of the brightest young talents to emerge in recent years and I have no doubt he will grow into a spectacular musician.

8.5/10


10 For 2011 – #2. James Blake

3 Feb

It’s probably not entirely fair to put James Blake on this list as he had a pretty fantastic 2010, releasing three terrific e.ps that featured in several high-profile best of lists in December. It’s very likely that 2011 will be even better though as this month he releases his highly anticipated debut album ‘James Blake’, which features the Radio 1 A Listed single ‘Limit to You Love’ and the even more brilliant ‘The Wilhelm Scream’. Here Blake takes a more traditional approach to songwriting than the post-dub step style of his e.ps, and the quality of his voice and piano playing are reasons to look forward to the release.

Blake’s minimal style makes comparisons to The XX, Joy Orbison and Jamie Woon pretty easy but you just can’t pigeon hole this man, he goes in so many different directions that it’s impossible to say what he will do next. ultimately that’s why he is so exciting and that’s why he is so high on this list.

http://www.myspace.com/jamesblakeproduction

James Blake ‘Limit To Your Love’

29 Oct

James Blake is a very exciting artists in the world of electronica, and his new single ‘Limit to Your Love’ more than lives up to the hype. Turns out he isn’t just a great producer but he’s also a great singe. Check out the video plus an older track that I really like.