Saturday, 29 January 2011

New Adventures in Sound

One of the advantages of the Itunes supermarket (other download sites are available, as Shaun Keaveny might say) is that we're no longer tied to purchasing whole albums in the hope of musical satisfaction.  So many times in the past I'd invested hopefully, willing an album to be another 'Blue Lines' 'Stone Roses' or 'Stories From the City', good from start to finish.  It rarely happened, too many fillers in amongst the songs I'd play to death.  Although there is no doubt that 'Limit to Your Love' is a standout on James Blake's self-titled new album, with it's spooky atmosphere and hard truthfulness, the other ten songs are much more than supporting acts.  Deservedly included in the Beeb's 'Sound of 2011' list, he lives up to the hype.   It is such an interesting album to listen to, especially through earphones.  I've been spending time with it on tube journeys, the grey gloom of January and the worn out commuter faces in urban settings providing the perfect filmscape for this soulful electronica.

Truly avant-garde and forward looking, it might initially flummox ears more used to verse-chorus-verse.  Simple phrases are used as a starting point to build around and Blake obviously sees the studio as of much of an instrument as a piano.  The songs, no doubt extremely carefully put together, often sound a bit broken, abstract or dissonant. Occasionally, on tracks like 'I Never Learnt to Share', which builds to a maelstrom of whirring angry sounds, the structure seems to allude to underlying neuroses.  Lyrics are often masked with distortion and vocoder, sometimes revealed like land through a mist only after repeated listens; how much to expose, both sonically and emotionally, is a theme that runs right through the 11 tracks.  In amongst all the experimentation there is soul - snatches of piano sound gospelly and the harmonies in Blake's voice often sound similar to John Legend or Antony Hegarty.

Like the more notable of dubsteppers and those influenced by it, melancholy abounds.  Burial had 'U Hurt Me' and 'Broken Home' and the XX panicked against the fear of disappointment (those 'Can I make it better...?' lyrics).  James Blake reveals doubt ('I don't know about my love') and pain ('My brother and my sister don't speak to me, but I don't blame them').  The space in the production lets this soul baring stand proud and its all the more affecting for it.  It is Blake's voice above all, that cuts through all the technological wizardry to shine.  He makes a virtue of all the slight quivers and cracks in his voice in the same way that Chris Martin did at first - it was this open vulnerability that first drew people to 'Parachutes'.  In doing so, he is more effortlessly able to convey emotion more tangibly, making the caterwauling histrionics of the X-Factor mob seem all the more fraudulent by comparison.

Cerebral, moving and a must-have if you're at all into your electronic music, 'James Blake' might yet be one of those albums that, in time, is considered a classic.

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