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.
James Blake – James Blake
British wunderkind James Blake made giant, blog-provoking waves with his first few singles and EPs, revealing an interesting talent to the world: a dubstep producer who also sang like a cross between D’Angelo and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, giving the dark, tense genre some warm humanity. Up until now, it had mostly only been heard in sampled snippets, but his eponymous debut album emphasizes his vocal prowess, which helps to broaden his sound considerably. And when turning on James Blake, the sound is the most immediately engaging thing about the album. To his immense credit, Blake recognizes that silence is an instrument itself, and the vast spaces between notes (along with the reverberating drum machines and piano chords) create a sparse, isolated atmosphere, one that heightens Blake’s introspection and loneliness. “The Wilhelm Scream” is easily the best thing here, bringing all the best aspects of his music together: an evocative, slow-building production and a moving vocal from the man himself. “I Never Learnt To Share” and his previously released Feist cover “Limit To Your Love” aren’t far behind though, the former sounding like a dubstep remix of a Play-era Moby track and the latter all spare piano and skittering soul.
Yet, as brilliant as these moments are, James Blake also reveals its namesake to be somewhat of a one-trick pony. Nearly the entire album works within the same formula, and while the sound of the album is arresting at first, repeated listens dissipate the mystique and reveal a number of mediocre tracks. The album is less an electronica album and more of an electronic singer/songwriter record, and Blake simply doesn’t have the songwriting chops to sustain a whole album, especially because the sound and approach changes so little from song to song. With the exception of “To Care (Like You),” the whole second half of James Blake sounds like one song: clipped, sampled vocals and spacious production repeated ad nauseum with each spin not adding any more depth to the music. Make no mistake: James Blake is onto something here, and the handful of songs on this album worth returning to are quite remarkable. He has a honed a sound both familiar and distinct, a sound that will pay great dividends for him in the future. All of this makes him an artist to watch, but first he needs to write a set of songs that carry the emotion he so desperately wants to convey.