Tuesday, April 12, 2011

James Blake (2011)



James Blake's minimalistic, electronic but oddly raw R&B isn't quite as new as it's cracked up to be. Sure, unless you count Radiohead's experiments on The King of Limbs, this is the most mainstream-friendly the dubstep subgenre has gotten thus far, but an extra listen to the more far-flung material Prince was throwing out in the Sign o' the Times era reveals the same sense of another world's underbelly, the processed vocals symphonically backing up against one another to create actual disorientation. Still, as a producer, Blake is a master at creating that out-of-mind feeling and fusing it with almost eagerly heavy emotion.

Blake's EPs were more firmly in the cult mode, with half-formed ideas aplenty. He gets it together fast for this major-label full-length; the first three songs all vibrate and shimmer with bursting invention and drive, marvelously tricky and fun to listen to while carrying just the proper introspective weight. The jewel of the record is "Wilhelm Scream," a parade of paranoid tics and aching beauties -- "Unluck" and "I Never Learnt to Share" build themselves up nicely but end up coming off as bookends.

The problem is that until its finale, the explosively direct and complete "Measurements," Blake's record doesn't expand on the offerings of its first ten minutes. The sounds that throttle you then are more or less what you live with for the rest of the album, which would be fine if it offered real songs in a more persuasive sense, but only the flimsy but funky "To Care (Like You)" and the Feist cover "Limit to Your Love" (which fails to uncover much that its composer didn't on The Reminder) don't seem as incomplete as linking material from Smile.

There is also the sense that indie rock's interpretation of soul and funk is all too brittle, airy, cerebral. The beats titter and tease but never release; that is probably the point, I grant you, but the same way I miss a nice blast of guitar on some folk-indie records that seem to be begging for it, I miss the actual body response when nice boys attempt soulful dance music.

But this is a fascinating album all the same, never overstaying its welcome at just under forty minutes -- one worth multiple investigations, and the sideways beauty of "Wilhelm Scream" and primal sway of "Measurements" are enough to make it noteworthy. "Measurements" escorts Blake out into the night with the transformation of an inward-looking chant into some kind of communal celebration, all excruciating pauses and thrilling explosions. It doesn't matter if this is the future of music when it can feel this present.

CMYK EP (2010)

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