The Groove Seeker: James Blake

On a weekly basis, The Groove Seeker goes in search of killer grooves across rock, funk, hip hop, soul, electronic music, jazz, fusion, and more.

James Blake: James Blake (Atlas Records, 2/7/11)

James Blake: “The Wilhelm Scream”

[audio:|titles=James Blake: “The Wilhelm Scream”]

After gaining significant attention in 2010 with three EPs — The Bells Sketch, CMYK, and Klavierwerke — London-based electronic producer James Blake is releasing his self-titled full-length on Atlas Records.  The EPs established Blake as a new go-to producer, whose soul-noir brand of dubstep has surprised many with its low-energy beats and restrained, ultramodern approach.  Blake’s music is a staggering, spacious collage of R&B and nu-soul samples suspended over deep drum kits, skittering glitch pulses, and highly saturated vocals.

But with so many musicians following the same avant-garde, cut-and-paste approach, Blake’s earlier music doesn’t so much break barriers as it tests fertile grounds.  Though the EPs contain danceable grooves and imaginative arrangements, they remain stamp-less, sounding like the supplementary material to an experimental music seminar on producing and remixing beats.

“Limit to Your Love,” the first single to his upcoming album, covers Feist, reducing the original to its simple piano phrase with a tension that lies somewhere between nerve-biting silence and wall-shaking bass.  But more importantly, the song reveals a voice capable of channeling the faint intimacy of Bon Iver and the soulful croon of Bill Withers.  It’s a warm vocal style that is crucial in realizing Blake’s appeal.

With a cold, insular delivery, Blake’s music reveals emotional motifs as much as it hides them, leaving listeners in search for their meaning.  But those who have fallen in love with “Limit to Your Love” must know that it’s the most conventional track in the producer’s catalog. From the steady building of “Unluck,” it’s immediate that Blake has traded in some flair for finesse, relying on tremendously sparse arrangements and delicately auto-tuned vocals to forge a new sound.

The album’s finest moments are its most quiet.  “The Wilhelm Scream,” with its early ’90s R&B palpitations and mild reverb, sounds like it is encased in a tank filled with water, while Blake’s vocals bubble up to the top.  The vocal melody is strong enough to hold its own, even when the song turns into electronic mush.  It’s a serene sound that revels in certain darkness — an aesthetic that he also masters on “I Never Learnt to Share” and “To Care (Like You).”

Then there are pleasant surprises like “Give Me My Month,” a piece with no signs of post-production tweaks.  It seems to be an unadulterated glimpse at the singer/songwriter in Blake as the track features only him and piano. Though it’s short, it provides a much-needed break from the brooding electronic tunes.  The same can be said about “Why Don’t You Call Me,” another short track with a slightly more daring cut-and-paste arrangement behind it.

Audiences should listen closely to find Blake’s harmonies.  Though they’re shrouded in dissonance, they become all the more gratifying thanks to the occasional spot of clarity and beauty in a chord or scale.  Layered and ambient, slightly off-key and strange, Blake’s debut record is his most accomplished to date.  Falling somewhere between soul, folk, and R&B, this young man is becoming the leading figure in dubstep’s darker side.

Leave a Comment