The Squeezebox: James Blake – James Blake (2011)

5 03 2011

How ’bout that dubstep?  Popular with British clubheads since the late 90s, dubstep’s head-nodding, syncopated beats and complex percussive arrangements have provided a very chill, cerebral alternative to the house/techno standards common in British club for quite some time.  But its spacey nature, instrumental focus and fixation on the club environment have limited dubstep’s popularity to its own small niche market, just waiting for someone to break it open into the mainstream psyche.  Last year, James Blake began that process with his series of EPs, The Bells Sketch, CYMK, and Klavierwerke, a collection of some of the most innovative dubstep to be released last year.  The title track off CYMK, a groovy slice of dubstep-pie featuring heady vocal samples, sliced, diced and pushed through effects boxes like a garlic press, received plenty of acclaim and airplay, ranking highly on several “songs of the year” lists and helping the 3-EP set reach #8 on Pitchfork’s top albums of the year.  But even with all this critical acclaim, it was still just dubstep, and as cool as it was, as pumped as the electronic music scene was about it, it was still a niche sound, not quite ready for the mainstream.

But then, in November, James Blake dropped a bombshell with his single “Limit to Your Love,” a cover originally recorded by Feist off her 2007 album The Reminder.  The song starts with an immediate surprise to those who were expecting more dubstep: no effects, no samples, nothing but a piano and Blake’s voice, crooning like he was born for it.  As the song develops, it picks up some barebones percussive instrumentation and some great supportive vocal harmonics, but through the whole thing it retains that slow, swaying, narcotic vibe, shocking anyone who expected more beats and bumps and adding a whole new facet to Blake’s cache of musical skills.  Critics were left dumbfounded, wondering how he would use this previously cloaked vocal prowess in his upcoming album.

To all of our ecstatic relief, Blake’s self-titled debut LP, released in the UK on February 7th, doesn’t disappoint in the least.  From the first 5 seconds of opening track “Unluck,” we quickly come to find the vocals becoming a staple of the album.  Instead of the usual dubstep routine of using vocals simply as another instrument in a percussive-driven groove-basket, Blake returns to more traditional styles of songwriting, building the instrumentation around the words, constructing songs with purpose, narrative and emotion, the building blocks of a breakout success.

Throughout the entire album, Blake keeps the beat slow, the instrumentation minimal and the vocals strong.  He masters the vocoding and auto-tuning techniques to enhance, rather than compensate for his vocal abilities.  The fact that he can keep his music so sonically minimal yet still keep the listener utterly enthralled and entranced, Blake has proven that he’s a verifiable level 5 musical warlock, an electronic producer who—surprise surprise—is a singer/songwriter/master pianist all wrapped into one.  Even the most organic, minimal piano/voice tracks such as “Give Me My Month” and “Why Don’t You Call Me” are striking in their emotive expression.  Adios head-nod, goodbye club-pleasers, this is no longer dubstep.  This is Blakestep.

92% ~ travlife

James Blake’s official website
James Blake on Myspace

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