James Blake ‘James Blake’ Album Review

Image from Ben Millar Cole

My friend came round yesterday while I was playing James Blake’s debut album through the speakers in my front room. “It’s Erykah Badu with white noise,” he said, turning it up.

I’d been looking for the right R&B reference when I posted about this album yesterday but I couldn’t quite find the right one. It wasn’t quite D’Angelo and it wasn’t Curtis Mayfield, but there was definitely a specific R&B influence underneath the 11 songs on the self-titled release. And Badu’s the right reference: Blake’s voice sits over rim shots and slowed down snares on the opening track ‘Unluck’ in a way that reminds me of ‘Rimshot‘. It’s a powerful opening shot, and one that sets the scene beautifully for the rest of the record.

“Wilhelm’s Scream’ is the second single, and it’s more soulful and straightforward than ‘Limit To Your Love’, although straightforward, Blake-style, still means mournful organs hanging halfway on the horizon and submarine-depth bass implosions over circular lyrics that fall in and out of the music, which by the end of the track sounds almost like a gospel house record – albeit in about five million little pieces.

James Blake ‘James Blake’ is a properly good album. It’s strong, cohesive, and powerful. You still want more when you get to the end, and it stands up to repeated listening. I reckon that most of my music friends will like it (though there’ll always be people who either like to hate on whatever’s hot or who who find Blake’s style a touch too emo). But I think my other friends, who work normal jobs and hang out at home with their families, will like it too. But that’s because Blake has brought genuinely interesting, soulful material into his pop songs. Take ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ with it’s repeated lyric ‘My brother and my sister don’t talk to me/ But I don’t blame them’. It’s totally odd and definitely shouldn’t work (one lyric repeated ad infinitum, over restrained CMYK beats isn’t the usual recipe for a memorable pop song) but it does. And that’s one of the marks of actual genius as executed by the likes of Aphex Twin or OutKast; doing things that shouldn’t work… and making them sound brilliant.

The middle section of the album is the Bon Iver patch. I can imagine Justin Vernon listening to consecutive tracks Lindesfarne I and II and going ‘yes! that’s exactly what I meant!’. And it’s the range of this record that makes it so appealing. After riffing on Bon Iver’s themes, we get Blake and his piano, with a short, sweet folk song ‘Give Me My Month’ that Crosby, Stills and Nash would have been perfectly happy with. It sits next to ‘To Care (Like You)’ which you could easily imagine hearing at FWD>>, despite the fact that it’s gospel-tinged, falsetto R&B-goes-techno at minus eight. The album is packed with compressed silences, the kind of sonic drop-out that few people would attempt (there’s at least seven seconds of silence at one point in ‘Limit To Your Love’), and which I know makes radio engineers panic because that silence sounds a hell of a lot like dead air. John Cage would be extremely proud.

Any downsides? None that hit me straight away. It’s cool and clever, emotional not emo and packed full of sophisticated sideways soul and deconstructed songs that still feel bizarrely memorable. It’s not as in your face as ‘CMYK’ and it’s more substantial than the barely-there threads of ‘Klavierwerke’ EP. I guess the only downside is that you’ll eventually be sick of hearing it everywhere, but only in the way that Portishead or Massive Attack were momentarily diminished by being so heavily overplayed. And that’s hardly a bad thing. One lovely record.

James Blake ‘James Blake’… Some Thoughts

I got James Blake’s album in the post today. And as well as the usual feelings of anticipation and curiosity you’d expect to feel when faced with such a hotly-awaited piece of music, I also felt a genuine sense of pride. I didn’t have anything to do with this album, obviously. I didn’t write the stripped down gospel songs, or let the beats fall in that idiosyncratic way, or allow the silence to gain such momentum that it became a presence: 22 year old Blake did all of that in his bedroom. But I know something about it, I know something that he knows, because I also attended FWD>> regularly during that heady period of expansion between 2006 and 2008, a place that is regularly cited as the springboard for Blake’s music. I wasn’t there at the start; I was part of the generation that took over from the hardcore that built dubstep’s foundations, a period that maximised the beginnings, but before the existence of all those horrible records people shout over on Radio1.

When I think about FWD>> I think about the music, and the darkness behind the curtain that separated the dancefloor from the bar area (watch any YouTube footage to see how dark that place was. All you can ever see is the orange light behind the DJ booth and the odd lighter). It was funny, intense, energetic, hedonistic, powerful. You’d meet people from wildly different lives: sophisticated 16 year olds who’d post on the dubstepforum about bouncing across the playground to Barefiles mixes; old school bassheads who had been around the block and recognised that spark of scene genius; short Croydon girls in loads of make-up and shirt dresses; middle-class students and of course the regular contingent of DJs and producers who you’d find at the back, where the bar merged into the cloakroom.

But where is FWD>> in James Blake’s self-titled debut? I can hear shades of Plastician and Skream playing their mix of Black Ghost’s ‘Some Way Through This’, or the first time I heard Appleblim playing there – my overriding memory of that set is hearing shockingly irrational beats with huge cliffsides of compressed air powering through the speakers, and hearing him play ‘Circling’ – or those weekly spins of galloping, understated soulful Mala tracks ‘Left Leg Out’, ‘Blue Notez’ and ‘Lean Forward’.

Most, though, I can hear Kode9 playing Massive Music’s ‘Find My Way’, a song recast to suit the needs of people who’ve grown up with breakbeats and who understand instinctively that music, song structure and rhythm can be re-arranged. ‘Find My Way’ felt like one of the first records I heard within dubstep that could be classed, however vaguely, as a song (that’s excluding all the dancehall and grime lyricists who’ve always surrounded the music) and to me, it’s a definite precursor to Blake’s music. One major difference is that Blake has dropped any hint of Jamaican soundsystem heritage from his album and replaced it with Bon Iver-style vocodered folk (that one second of vocoder on ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, stretched out over a whole song on ‘Lindesfarne I and II’), sparse, skinny gospel (‘Measurements’), and emotional, hungover pop (‘Limit To Your Love’). I might write a fuller album review at some point, but for now, two listens in on a rainy Saturday morning, I think that’s enough.

I saw someone questioning on Twitter whether 2011 would be the ‘year dubstep meets the pub singer’ and at its worst, that’s an apposite and accurate observation. On the other hand, this is a year when people who’ve experienced something special are coming back into the world, armed with everything they know about sub-bass and silence and perfectly misplaced beats and they’re taking this armoury into pop songs. James Blake has done it and who knows what fellow FWD>> alumni Ikonika, Braiden, Subeena, Deadboy or Ramadanman will create over the next few months and years. But I’m telling you. It’s going to be interesting.

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