Wednesday, July 20, 2011

James Blake- James Blake

There's something exciting and interesting about musical genres (and subgenres) hybridizing. True, musicians can still ring out some amazing music from firmly established sounds, but it's usually when new sounds and ideas are derived from the combining and re-jiggering of old ones that some of the most thrilling music is made. For instance, the late 80s/early 90s Madchester and 'baggy' scenes in England saw bands grafting 60s derived indie rock with then-new electronica. And of course, the explosion in musical genres during the 60s speaks for itself. But recent hybrids often burn themselves out quickly or reveal the shallowness of their sound when bands fail to rekindle the magic on follow-up albums. When was the last time you heard anyone talking about trip hop or dance-punk?

Still, this isn't to besmirch those joyous and novel records which seem to come out of nowhere to delight your atrophied musical worldview. James Blake's debut album has been such an occasion for me. Grafting together influences as complementary but disparate as dubstep, R&B, the vocoder-heavy vocals of Daft Punk (or perhaps Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak is a better point of comparison), and Jamie Lidell's Multiply, also a kind of one-man samples-and-loops thing, though Lidell leans more toward funk and soul. James Blake could also be considered a first or second cousin of the xx's self titled album, if only because that record's minimalist white-people R&B helps contextualize this record (something Blake has acknowledged in the press).

Blake combines all of these together in his own unique way, crafting one of those accidental masterpieces which sneak up on you until, after enough listens, you're hearing the songs in your head while doing the dishes or waiting for friends at a bar. By paring his music down to the barest of bones, he achieves a downright Low-esque minimalism though in an entirely different genre. His cover of Feist's 'Limit To Your Love' starts out absolutely skeletal, a barely-there piano and his unaffected voice eventually joined by skittering drum beats and altered vocal samples. The next track, 'Give Me My Month', does away with any electronic elements at all, the record's most naked moment, a piano-and-vocals ballad which sounds like a less falsetto Antony.

Some complaints have been leveled at the repetition of some songs, particularly 'I Never Learnt To Share.' Blake may extend its sole lyric beyond its limit, but repetition has always been a hallmark of minimalist music. Criticizing this song for repeating a single vocal phrase for too long is missing the point; the production and way all of the sounds progress until the electro-grind peak belies the fact that James Blake is as appropriate for headphones as it is the usual R&B method of putting it on a boombox surrounded by candles as a seduction aid. Not to mention this is one of those cases where one's distaste for a song has more to do with not liking something instead of the fault lying with the song or the artist. But I digress.

I suspect that this record may be a one-off triumph for Blake, since it's difficult to imagine him going anywhere with this sound now that he's simultaneously invented and perfected it. This is the promise and the curse of hybrid music, I suppose. Just to be clear, this doesn't diminish how outstanding James Blake truly is. It's an album which makes you realize there is still much territory to explore in music. Even though, in theory, it sounds similar to other things you're familiar with, the actual product sounds original and fresh.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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