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James Blake
James Blake Louis Pattison , February 2nd, 2011 05:42

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Blame that BBC poll if you will, but there has been something of a rush to judgement with this James Blake album, and one that seems to have spun people out to the furthest polarities. Radio 1 and NME evidently regard this boyishly handsome 23-year-old North Londoner and former Goldsmiths student as the right sort of "young auteur" figure ideal to sell an underground sound - in this case, the now rather well-established but somewhat faceless UK garage offshoot, dubstep - to a faintly curious mainstream audience without scaring the horses in the process. Others have jumped on Blake as a depressing case study of the way divergent musical genres have to be made over Snog, Marry, Avoid-style in acceptably bland Topman garms before press and radio dare give it any credence. Or, as my august hosts here at The Quietus put it, rather cattily, "Fran Healey R&B" - and somewhere, possibly, Fran Healey is sat there wincing, feeling a bit hard done by.

Being a somewhat irritating let's-play-devil's-advocate sort, I tend to find the best way of dealing with records like James Blake is to sit on them a bit, give them a couple of spins a week without any real intent, and see what happens. The first thing I wish to report is that sonically speaking - and sorry if this is old news to you here, zeitgeist-surfers - this album is not, not in any way shape or form, a dubstep record. If you count dubstep as the early productions of Horsepower Productions, Kode9 or Digital Mystikz, or even lauded latecomers like Shackleton or wobble brothers Caspa and Rusko, James Blake doesn't really fit in anywhere. In reality, what we have here is a collection of songs - rather simple singer-songwriter songs, steeped in rather traditional and well-worn forms like folk and soul, rhythm 'n' blues and gospel, but channelled through modern kit: synths, vocoders, sequencers and drum machines. They're songs bent out of shape by technology, twisted and treated - but for the most part still retaining their essential shape.

Which isn't to say that Blake's assertion to be "in the dubstep scene", as he told the Guardian, is all hot air. Since its coronation as the brand of forward-thinking dance music in the UK, producers working around dubstep's banner have shown themselves to be almost flighty in their forward thinking, desperate not to be seen embracing inertia - and the rhetoric follows suit: see that rash of new tags, 'wonky', 'future garage' and the like. Blake's earliest EPs, the likes of The Bells Sketch and Klavierwerke flit enjoyably around such a template, and if you squint, you can see how James Blake might have grown from it too. The deeper end of dubstep inverts acid house's 'together as one' communion in favour of a sort of rave of the interior - see the slogan of Brixton's DMZ, "Come meditate on bass weight", encouraging an atmosphere where hoods go up and heads bow down before shuddering speakers. Elsewhere, producers like Burial and Darkstar have mined deep into dubstep's dark upper layer and extracted emotions long-buried in the lower strata, blanched-out echoes of the good times once enjoyed in the halcyon days of jungle and 2step garage. Consider that solipsism and downbeat emotion are basically the building blocks of the singer-songwriter, add to this that Blake is ripe for a bit of the cabin-dwelling misery of Bon Iver and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, and suddenly James Blake starts to make a lot of sense.

It never makes more sense than on 'Limit To Your Love'. It is a cover of a Feist song, and it should be pointed out that a lot of the phrasing and cadence comes straight from her version. Regardless, though, it is very good, a masterclass in the use of space and silence to create a sense of emotional heaviness - just a brush of piano, the clack of percussion, and a ghostly aura of sub bass that gives the song a subliminal weight.

In a sense, though, I think 'Limit...'s success is James Blake's first problem. Before playing the record, I assumed it would be 'the ballad', but instead it is 'the template'. Which is to say that as a whole, this record is sparse in the extreme, often rather flimsy, and never once matches the power of its first single. It comes closest with 'Wilhelm's Scream', a mournful song of lost love undercut with gentle, almost imperceptible synth bubbles and the occasional echo-soaked sonar thunk that suggest Blake might not have seen dry land, let alone his absent sweetheart, for six long months. Also worthy of investigation is a track in two movements, 'Lindesfarne I' and 'II'. In the first, Blake plugs in his vocoder and goes a bit 'O Superman', his soft, folkish words frozen into sharp, robotic digital. In the second, the vocoder is turned down, and quiet guitar and drum-pad beats played at a slight, eddying tempo create a serene effect.

Elsewhere, though, we learn that Blake, while often an intuitive producer, is not a songwriter of much skill, and seems to have struck on the idea of multi-tracking vocals to paper over the flaws. 'Measurements' attempts to build into a sort of gospel chorus with extensive use of overlaid voices, but part of the delight of gospel is the way different, distinct vocals criss-cross and intermingle - here, we have four or five James Blakes, and the effect falls some way short of spiritual. 'I Never Learnt To Share', meanwhile, finds Blake at his most bleating, repeating the same line - "My brother and my sister don't speak to me / But I don't blame them..." - over and over; after hearing it for the seventh or eighth time, you're left thinking, nah, I don't blame them either, bruv. Worse still is the musical backdrop, a string of rambling jazz-funky keyboard runs that finally builds to a climax provoking a similar ratcheting nausea to my last migrane.

Elsewhere, other tracks try to vault the gap between song and dance tracks, and fall between. 'Why Don't You Call Me' finds Blake deconstructing his own song as he sings it, vocals manipulated Burial-style, pitched up and down, chopped up and scattered - but the result feels so preoccupied with process, it fails to coalesce. 'To Care (Like You)' and 'I Mind' are the closest the record comes to proper dance tracks, locking intricate percussion to shuddering, Basic Channel bass, but even then, they come out sounding undercooked, grooves deployed rather listlessly and cast off just when they feel like they're going somewhere.

And that's the feeling that lingers after the record has drawn to a close. There remains plenty to admire about a figure like Blake, one who skirts the margins of genres, keen to develop his own voice. But Lord knows what a broader audience, tempted in by the Sound Of 2011 hype and curious to dip their toe in this exciting new genre called dubstep, will make of this rather anaemic record. Dance music for bedwetters, they might decide. And from here it would be difficult to disagree.

Will
Feb 2, 2011 11:15am

Why is this on A&M?

"is not a songwriter of much skill". <key>

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Rory Gibb
Feb 2, 2011 11:53am

"after hearing it for the seventh or eighth time, you're left thinking, nah, I don't blame them either, bruv."

Amen. I do like the record (and am a big fan of a lot of his earlier stuff) but that track does grate. As far as I'm concerned though, 'To Care Like You' and 'I Mind' are the two best, as they work with the downbeat, subtly composed template of his stuff on Klavierwerke. A decent record, but a bit lightweight, and hardly the new pop paradigm that he seems to be being portrayed as by swathes of the curious mainstream media.

Talented producer though, I look forward to hearing more of his dancefloor material.

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Rory Gibb
Feb 2, 2011 11:53am

In reply to Rory Gibb:

Oh, and good review by the way, probably the most fair I've read so far.

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Dana
Feb 2, 2011 1:19pm

great, balanced review

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John Calvert
Feb 2, 2011 2:19pm

brilliant review.

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Johnny Bebop
Feb 2, 2011 5:08pm

YOU CAN'T JUST PRETEND THAT ARTHUR RUSSELL NEVER EXISTED... JAMES BLAKE HAS JUST SHAMEFULLY RIPPED OFF WORLD OF ECHO ETC

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Tomas
Feb 2, 2011 5:38pm

I really like the explanatory nature of this review that argues every opinion and delves deep into the marrow of James Blake. It's a very good record: brave, smart and inspiring, but there are few flaws that are well pointed here. Thanks for such quality insight and opinion.

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thom
Feb 2, 2011 7:26pm

many of the flaws pointed out here, the lack of song-writing skill, the 'anemic' production et al were all that i heard when i listened to this record the first few times...but lately i find myself singing a few of these songs in my head...I think this album is not something you can play non-stop, but in the right venues and head space, there is something remarkable about these songs...the open space, the minimal embellishments, the inventiveness...this guy definitely has talent/I'm curious if he will continue singing on his next full length?

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D.
Feb 2, 2011 10:13pm

Good review, but have to disagree. I honestly think this is a stunning album and a beautiful addition to Blakes already stellar musical works. But I guess it ain't for everyone.

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Robsku
Feb 3, 2011 7:38am

Wonderful review. Would have been to easy to have simply cut him down.

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Jacol
Feb 3, 2011 12:39pm

I love this record, best review by far.

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Joel
Feb 3, 2011 6:33pm

This was a very interesting and nuanced review of an equally interesting and nuanced record that I look forward to reading more critical discussion of in the near future. However, the review, I believe, erroneously sees James' self-titled as "recent" work, and then attempts to proffer a theory of Blake's evolution. Consider the following from a posting on drownedinsound featuring details of the album release:

"It'll be released on his own label, ATLAS and most of the material was written whilst Blake was at university. Blake says the album represents:

'The first songs I’ve really written … you can probably tell when I wrote them by the sounds. Especially how I treat my vocals – the way they’re produced is quite unique.'"

http://drownedinsound.com/news/4141542-james-blake-lets-slip-album-release-date-possible-title?search

Although perhaps not vital to an understanding of this collection of songs, it is perhaps of interest to note that they are older compositions.

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mr-x
Feb 4, 2011 9:34am

thats quite a harsh review. and the first mistake the reviewer made was looking at it as a singer songwriter album. look at it from that pov and of course its not going to add up. not saying its perfect or that blake IS an amazing songwriter but thats just not what you go into this record for. or what you should be expecting.

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simon
Feb 4, 2011 3:46pm

"but the result feels so preoccupied with process, it fails to coalesce."

lovely rhyme there

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Heiko
Feb 4, 2011 7:15pm

Thank you! Finally there's someone, who can see beyond all that overhyped bullshit-babble. Great and honest review.

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Not Bob
Feb 4, 2011 11:15pm

I'd never listened to Blake before or read any reviews when I listened to the album, and I think it's a frequently brilliant record, not a masterpiece, but definitely better than the EPs.

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johnny bebop
Feb 6, 2011 5:59pm

ARTHUR RUSSELL ?????????????????????

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Louis
Feb 7, 2011 1:43pm

Thanks all for comments!

@ Johnny Bebop

'Rip off' is a bit rich - World Of Echo is entirely cello, echo and live percussion; Blake is piano and keys, vocoder and loop pedals, digital percussion and bass. Not saying it's not a similar vibe, but we're talking wholly different equipment.

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Eiccm
Feb 7, 2011 6:35pm

Great balanced Review! I hear the music in my head at times and enjoy it a lot. Expectations were build up too much, and now there is disappointment that shouldn't be, because, really the album is good...not great, but good. I'll keep my ears open for more of Blakes music.

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John Calvert
Feb 15, 2011 7:53pm

hasn't anyone forged a connection between Blake and Bon Iver? I'm not primarily talking about the vocoder/autotune. I'm talking about the pauses and the melodies. to me its blatant,

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zoydbond
Feb 18, 2011 9:23pm

jesus- poor steve spacek is not getting the nods he deserves vis a vis this album...give curvatia or vintage hi-tech a listen...save a bit of space and a reedier voice, this is not anything new.

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Blake
Feb 19, 2011 7:49am

This album is the most enjoyable under the influence. I mean it really, really shines. I promise you will appreciate it so much more.

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Madcap
Feb 19, 2011 5:06pm

Well I agree, an excellent review. However I disagree with the conclusion. Sometimes less is more, Pink Floyd understood that but it is a difficult concept for some to understand. You see it is the space that makes this recording special. Almost whats not in it, rather than what is.

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Ted G
Mar 6, 2011 1:27am

As a Neil Young fan struggling to get to grips with 'the internet' I might not be the best person to judge this record but I think it's pretty crap. Isn't music supposed to be uplifting? Even if music is melancholy and downbeat it can still be uplifting if it's beautiful. I found this so sterile and soul destroying; self-absorbed poseur nonsense you can feel audibly sagging in its own self-importance. Listen to the last track and see what I mean. That isn't beautiful, it's boring as shit. The reviewer wasn't strong enough in my opinion.

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Bobwotsit
Mar 10, 2011 1:46pm

Agreed with most on here - this is a good review in light of all the hype out there. At 23 he's got loads of time to improve and find his style a bit more but is bound to be heavily influenced at the moment - just a shame he got the BBC kiss of death so early.
As for the Dubstep argument...?? who really cares which pot music falls into, especially when this is, as Louis said, the kind of scene that sees hoods up and heads in.
Not a bad album, getting grating after the sixth week of listening but I like his taste in sounds (Royksopp peaked with Mel AM - hope this isn't the best of young Blake!).

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Harry Lightfoot
May 17, 2011 9:27pm

Interesting review, but why oh why do people have this fixation with whether electronic music coming from london at the moment is or isn't dubstep. To compare this album to the genre some people choose to pigeon-hole it into is pointless. Take it as a new and experimental piece of work that has evolved from producers past.

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Daniel Lopez
Sep 30, 2011 5:58pm

This album took me a while to really "get." Your review comes to all of the right conclusions but, I believe, with time this album just unfurls and goes from being interesting to great. Once you've seen his live shows, you start to see the connections to dubstep as the live performances pack a lot of punch that can't really be felt on record. It takes time, but this album is simply fantastic.

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nbl
Apr 19, 2013 11:24am

In reply to Johnny Bebop:

I totally agree!

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nbl
Apr 19, 2013 11:24am

In reply to Johnny Bebop:

I totally agree!

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nbl
Apr 19, 2013 11:24am

In reply to Johnny Bebop:

I totally agree!

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nbl
Apr 19, 2013 11:24am

In reply to Johnny Bebop:

I totally agree!

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nbl
Apr 19, 2013 11:24am

In reply to Johnny Bebop:

I totally agree!

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Radical
Nov 8, 2013 10:05pm

In reply to zoydbond:

Totally agree with zoydbond this is HEAVILY influenced by curvatia and vintage hi tech. its true we are all HEAVILY influenced by things we see and hear and feel.. 12 years to get into the mainstream... yeah man, things happen slowly.. its taken me years to learn that. Big up to Steve and the crew for making such great music so ahead of its time!

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