Excluding the juvenile world/factory of Disney, even by today’s standards Londoner James Blake is a mere babe in music Toyland. Twenty-two years isn’t a whole lot of time to become a “pioneer” or “leader” in or of anything, but where there’s a void leave it to the eager ambition of new blood (and technology) to fill it. Blake has done just that as a forward thinker and producer in the realm of dub step, gently ushering his version of it past club doors and onto mainstream UK dance floors and airwaves. Not bad for a twenty-something.
A tremulous voice atop beats, samples, and echoes owing unlikely allegiance to the roots of jazz and American soul music, Blake’s voice floates between the sensual, the sad and solitude. Upon first glance/listen your initial reaction might be to suspect a new channel of that other blue-eyed British funk/soul/electro/DJ brother Jamie Lidell, and there are much worse assumptions to jump to. But where Lidell is avant-soul, electro funk, and 50s-70s R&B bathed pop (that was me wearing out my copy of his CD Jim in 2008), Blake has an alt sonic approach. You may have heard it before, just not packaged quite like this.
Watch a video combinining parts 1 & 2 of Blake’s Lindsfarne suite (named for a tiny English island with a population of under 200 residents) from director Martin de Thurah:
With a shift of gears that’s more a natural progression than radical tilt, Blake’s transition from techno knob turner to soul/pop crooner is a thing of conversation and near universal raves. His voice belies the youthful and impassive face from which it comes as the compositions are left to make all of the connections. Between 2009-2010 he’s dropped four EPs upon the masses: Air & Lack Thereof, The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke; each EP a varied take on his electro-based theme (R&B, piano, samples, etc.) and each EP a teaser of what could be. What became in 2010 was his eponymous debut, full-length album which provided greater illumination on his tastes, talents, and ability to be cohesive.
As careful and tempered as the bits, clicks, and beats of processed sound and vocoder are, Blake layers them with warm, reserved vocal soul and classic skills on piano. Your headphones have a place in the listening to the majority of Blake’s music due to the lower frequencies, as well as the constant presence in his production of the use of breath and space amid the hooks to sometimes create moments of extended, aching tension, contracting and releasing them along with each emotion. His icy (brrrr) cover of Feist’s Limit to Your Love is at least two beats down; so labored is the delivery and piano line that you may actually feel his pain because the dude sounds like he’s a ghost drowning in it.
Baby-making may very well occur. You’ve been warned.
Even with all of the technology that he has at his disposal as an electronica/dub step wunderkind, James Blake, the performer, is quite the minimalist, particularly on his album. Granted, this type of work isn’t meant for every music head; what may move at a snail’s pace or be painfully dull for some (don’t feel bad if you fall asleep while listening) is an artistic turning point in musicality for others. The feat of so much depth achieved from so much sparseness (The Wilhelm Scream is an echo chamber of repetition) forces you to pay attention to the lyrics, to the starts and stops, the build of bass loops and synth, even to where and when his voice bends (and if it does so naturally or with electronic assistance) during the melancholy ride. It’s pretty damned methodical and reverent. Listening for the sake of listening might not cut it; you might have to work for the reward.
This is James Blake; a curious creature embarking on his first tour in front of the microphone instead of solely making magic behind a console. Currently he has the world’s ear; let’s see what he can do with it.
Dig in deeper at James Blake’s official site.