James Blake – Overgrown
James Blake’s eponymous debut established him as a producer to watch and a songwriter that needed practice. His mix of dubstep, trip-hop and ’90s R&B suggested a sort of futuristic, metropolitan singer/songwriter, and it resulted in some stunning singles (“The Wilhelm Scream,” “Limit To Your Love”). But his skeletal songs couldn’t always stand up to the surroundings, so the record too often slipped from “ethereal” to “ephemeral,” with many tracks fading from memory. A couple years and EPs later, though, Blake has honed his skills, crafting a thoughtful variation on his signature sound on Overgrown. He shows even more restraint here than in the past, never forcing his studio trickery, pushing a lot of his manipulations into the background. No gobs of reverb or excessively chopped-up vocals here (though both of those certainly show up here and there in small doses), all the better to serve the more straight-ahead songs and productions. Just check the title track for an excellent example of how this album finds Blake improving in every way. It’s still anchored by aquatic beats and Blake’s fragile voice, but listen to how he plays with dynamics, tempering the repeated verses and hooks with a soft musical sweep, deftly incorporating cymbal washes, string orchestrations and piano chords without distracting from the central theme. It’s this smarter songwriting sense that colors the very best parts of Overgrown, like the great “Retrograde,” which builds off a wonderfully swinging vocal loop into some passionate digital soul. But Blake isn’t just a stronger musician—he’s also diversifying. RZA shows up to spit a few verses on “Take A Fall For Me;” “DLM” adds some touches of jazz to his piano-based confessionals, and even Brian Eno stops by on the beat-heavy and (relatively) more aggressive “Digital Lion.” His production and songwriting still aren’t detailed and nuanced enough to keep everything from sounding too monochromatic; however, moments like the claustrophobic house track, “Voyeur,” which could have just as easily fit on his debut, show how far he’s come along, since it demands attention instead of slumping off into the corner. Issues aside, Overgrown is a more mature, assured record than its predecessor, and more importantly, it indicates that Blake may be on the verge of something even better.
Talking Heads – More Songs About Buildings And Food
To be sure, More Songs About Buildings And Food largely repeats the achievements of Talking Heads: 77, but as they say, God is in the details. The addition of Brian Eno as producer was an inspired one, as he enabled the band to delve into more complex rhythms, shifting the emphasis to Tina Weymouth’s bass and Chris Frantz’ drums and kick-starting the sonic evolution that would define the next stage of the band’s career. Nearly every track is couched in a dance groove and a short, measured guitar riff, and where all of 77‘s songs were fairly conventional in terms of structure, “Found A Job” ends in a two minute jam. But it’s not just Eno’s production: David Byrne remained as odd and compelling a frontman as ever, turning in performances more manic and unhinged—”Artists Only” is practically a nervous breakdown committed to tape—than anything on the Heads’ debut. And since so much of this record gets by on groove, the songs wouldn’t even have to be as hooky or as well-written as they are to be successful. Yet Byrne triumphed here, crafting an ebullient misfit-in-love song on the galloping “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel,” adding to “Tentative Decisions”‘ analysis of male-female relations on “The Girls Want To Be With The Girls” and giving humorously shrewd career advice on “Found A Job.” But it’s the last two tracks that made More Songs About Buildings And Food the breakthrough it was. The unexpectedly brilliant cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” manages to stand alongside the original, a sentiment echoed by the public, who made it Talking Heads’ first real hit. And then the country-tinged finale, “The Big Country,” not only showed off the band’s versatility but proved that Byrne was only getting better. In his most sophisticated set of lyrics to this point, he imagines himself on a plane, looking down on the lives of rural farmers and suburbanites with both scorn and envy. It’s a fitting conclusion, pointing to the next stages of the band’s journey, where they would continue to push themselves into headier territory.
Brian Eno – Small Craft On A Milk Sea
There’s a certain inevitability to Brian Eno joining up with Warp Records to release an album. The label has launched many an influential electronic musician’s career, and much of its output is often directly inspired from Eno’s pioneering ambient work in the 1970s. Considering he is currently been more notable for his production work (Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, or, Death And All His Friends, for instance) and collaborations (such as his 2008 album with David Byrne) than his own solo work, this was as good a time as any to begin to make waves with Small Craft On A Milk Sea, his first Warp release.
Recorded with longtime collaborators Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins, Small Craft is undoubtedly a largely ambient work, but it is also often more rhythmically aggressive than one expects from Eno. Not to say that he hasn’t explored more abrasive soundscapes in the past, but when Abrahams’ guitar slams in and all hell breaks loose on “2 Forms Of Anger,” Eno is clearly mining different terrain. Others like the shuffling “Flint March” and the jagged “Horse” follow suit. Still, it is the gentler and more atmospheric tracks where he truly excels. Sister tracks “Emerald and Stone” and “Emerald and Lime” are two gorgeous keyboard pieces that approach the same melody in different ways, while the eerie menace of “Calcium Needles” and the pensive closer “Late Anthropocene” bring darker, murkier shades into the mix. Occasionally the songs feel like underdeveloped filler—Eno has worked with short-form ambient compositions before, but here a few songs aren’t given the room to flourish. These tracks, though, even have their moments of beauty, helping to make Small Craft On A Milk Sea one of the best albums Eno has produced in his latter-day career and proof that the master can still get the job done.