Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Backlash Blues

James Blake - James Blake

In some quarters of the media, the blogosphere and on twitter, James Blake has become a victim of cynicism. It's all very tempting of course - and I've no doubt been guilty of it myself. Given some of the selections that have graced the annual BBC tastemaking polls, it would be easy to dismiss Blake as a novelty or a pastiche merchant. The Quietus have been tweeting seemingly dismissive jokes about his use of autotune, whilst others have candidly decided that this debut album is either dull or indulgent. I had my own suspicions on hearing Blake's cover of Feist's 'Limit To Your Love', but that turns out to be something of a red herring. It's fine enough, but easily the most conventional track here.

What Blake appears to be doing with the rest of the album is something a good deal more ambitious than the Feist cover's take on Massive Attack esque modern soul. There are hints at R&B throughout the rest of the album, but as Blake himself admits, he has also been strongly influenced by the likes of Bon Iver and Laura Marling. Much of this courageous and well defined debut seems to be an attempt to combine the emotional punch of modern folk songwriting with some of the stylistic traits and minimalism of electronic production. In doing this, Blake will wrongfoot some of the admirers of his early EPs which, perhaps misleadingly, had been assumed by many to fall under the dubstep or post-dubstep banner. It's perhaps worth noting at this point that the outstanding Klawierwerke already gave some hint of what was to come on this full length. 'James Blake' the album demonstrates that Blake still has much in common with producers such as Jamie xx or Mount Kimbie, but he is also acutely aware of the power of the human voice and the purity of a simple melody.

Two tracks, both operating largely on the power of repetition and manipulation of a simple phrase, neatly sum up Blake's approach. 'The Wilhelm Scream' is a miniature masterpiece of minimal arrangement - spacious but cumulatively intense. 'I Never Learnt To Share' is similarly electrifying. It's built almost entirely around what seems like a candid confession ('my brother and my sister don't speak to me...but I don't blame them') but which assumes a stranger sentiment in the knowledge that Blake is in fact an only child. Much like 'The Wilhelm Scream', the song has a sense of a gathering storm. Blake generally eschews conventional song structures - these are arranged pieces rather than sets of verses and choruses.

Blake has a strong sense of harmony and rhythm. The gospel and blues undertones to the tantilisingly brief 'Give Me My Month' or the beautiful closer 'Measurements' suggests he has absorbed a far wider range of music than many commetators have given him credit for. He also has a keen sense of sound and a hugely impressive attention to detail that make even his most subtle pieces (such as the two parts of 'Lindisfarne', where his voice is electronically altered) have a depth of feeling and a real strength in commmunication. Anyone who closes their minds and ears to this excellent debut is missing the work of a talented and adventurous musician - one that could have career longevity simply through an ability to move in completely unpredictable directions.

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