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.