James Blake – James Blake (February 2011)

James Blake is in a wonderful position heading into his full length debut.  First of all, thanks to his three critically acclaimed EPs (The Bells Sketch, CMYK, and Klavierwerke), he’s got hype coming out of the wazoo.  Seasoned veteran electronica artists Flying Lotus, Four Tet, and Caribou all came out with albums in 2010, and James Blake, a British newbie, got more attention than all of them.  Secondly, he’s not going to rest on the laurels of his EPs.  None of the eleven songs from his EPs make his self-titled debut.  He doesn’t give into the temptation to put the heralded “I Only Know (What I Know Now)” or “CMYK,” my favorite track of his, to be certain that his album has a standout single.

Of course, that’s not the only way in which James Blake is daring.  Often during his EPs, songs failed to entirely materialize, and that trend continues on the album.  He opens unluck with a simple chord progression done with electronic buzzes and a simple beat, and he barely adds anything.  He makes songs, yeah, but it’s disarming to hear just how little he needs to do, and he sometimes doesn’t do enough.  Take “Lindisfarne I” and “Lindisfarne II,” each basically the same song, except the backing tracks on each could respectively be summarized as “almost nothing” and “barely something.”  The contrast makes “Lindisfarne II” sound oddly grand despite there being little to support it.  It’s a neat little trick, but you need to awkwardly sit through “Lindisfarne I” for it to work, and that’s dangerously close to listening to two minutes and forty three seconds of nothing at all.

He’s got all the tools for success.  His soulful voice, which works very well for his cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love,” helps carry the album, and discovering in  Klavierwerke that he liked to fiddle around on a piano helped expand his bag of tricks: Use very little electronics and use very little piano.  The first half tends towards the former, and after centerpiece and compromise between the two approaches “Limit To Your Love,” it tends toward the latter.  “Limit To Your Love” actually feels like a complete song, probably because it originated as one, but its buildup is expertly pulled off, and this song will probably no longer be remembered by history as a song by Feist.

Another spot of savvy is “The Wilhelm Scream,” whose descending “falling, falling, falling” (or whatever else) line is a brilliantly crafted melody, and what little backing there is helps to make the song sound more alone and sparse.  That would probably be the greatest strength of Blake’s relentless minimalism.  Each of his songs are so pained, so he makes it sound like he’s too shy to do anything more.

In mid 2009, The xx came out with a fully realized set of songs employing less as more.  Now James Blake, who has explicitly drawn influence from his fellow Brits, is trying to do the same thing, but more radically.  James Blake is nothing if it isn’t challenging (and it sometimes feels like almost nothing anyway), and its reckless minimalism isn’t something that he should stop.  He’s got ambition.  He’s taking challenges and making mistakes, and I hope his vision isn’t compromised.  James Blake leads me to believe that he might be the genius everyone thinks he is, but even the smartest still have a lot to learn.


Published in: on February 4, 2011 at 1:06 AM  Comments (1)  

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  1. After having trashed the full length, I probably owe it to myself (though not to Blake) to check out his EPs…(I started writing rockcrit again midyear, so I missed a lot). Which one would you suggest?

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