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A rising anti-star… James Blake

February 10, 2011

[7th February 2011, Atlas/A&M]

A few weeks ago I found myself struggling with a three day unbearable headache. Nevertheless, my craving for music – after so many hours without being able to listen to literally anything – made me think “screw it” and ask my dear friend Robbie Bizzle for some chilled out, soothing tunes. That is when I was introduced to my current “one and only true love” James Blake. I’m not gonna lie, he didn’t blow my headache away, but his music, and particularly his vocals were somewhat relieving. Especially with Feist’s cover, it was love at first listen.

Limit to Your Love – James Blake

By listening to his album songs first and only subsequently digging into his so-called post-dubstep remixes, I probably followed an inverse path compared to the numerous fans running after James Blake’s DJ sets throughout the fruitful 18 months preceding his self-titled debut album release this week. In my opinion though, it’s in his album that we can fully appreciate his musical genius.

Londoner James Blake started playing the piano and singing at the early age of 5, and his influences spread from jazz and soul – with Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder playing a pivotal role in his upbringing – to pop and R&B, which we can see in his remixes sampling artists like Aaliah, Brandy and R. Kelly.

His interest and passion for dubstep blossomed just before he enrolled at Goldsmiths, where he graduated in 2010 in Popular Music, deeply influencing his work and career as electronic composer and producer.

But what is it about him that led to this whole James Blake hype, with him being announced as the runner up for BBC’s Sound of 2011 and his tickets being sold out in a matter of minutes (I speak from or first hand experience)?

Well, his album is a great piece of art, using dubsteppy traits and features to achieve a sense of musicality that goes beyond the at times fake feeling of electronic music. It is something completely different from his remixes, and it shows for the first time his ability and passion for singing. On this matter he said: “It’s a strange feeling to have a lot of electronic music out when all you really want to do is sing.”

It is in that that we can sense the profound and wide experience and knowledge in his field. In the 40-ish minute long record he mixes tracks that highlight his singing talent, such as “Limit to Your Love”, with others where he plays with his vocals, layering them repeatedly to end up harmonising with several versions of himself – thus sounding as if he were playing an organ made of his vocal tracks instead of pipes (i.e. “Lindisfarne I”) – and short, unsettling songs, as “Give me my mouth”, an example that less can be, and is, more. The result is always a downtempo, dreamy and almost spaced out atmosphere.

I Never Learnt to Share – James Blake

Overall we deal on the one hand with distorted vocals, synths, electronic effects, and on the other with pure soul-like musicality delivered through simple and naked vocals and piano. These opposite elements stay at times separate, at others are skillfully interlaced so to create something fresh and new. In that we can see, as he himself recognises, it is thanks to artists like “The xx”, who paved this electro way, that his audience reception was made better prepared.

I was lucky enough to get the last two wristbands to see James Blake live at Rough Trade on Monday for his album release, and if he had already moved me by means of his studio recordings, his live performance was breathtakingly intense. Accompanied by Ben Assiter on drums and Rob McAndrews on guitar and sampler, the band was essential, contrasting the complex sounds they managed to create, which, notwithstanding the numerous effects achieved through two keyboards, several pedals and a sampler, always felt like genuine music.

As James himself said: “I can’t distort my voice without the use of a distortion unit, but that doesn’t mean I’m doing something unnatural.” I totally agree. The fact that all the electronic devices were being used as he was performing in a way that enhanced the music without making it sterile, made me – daughter of a Brazilian singer never having other than totally acoustic gigs – feel it as deeply honest and therefore extremely touching.

The last track he performed, his second single “The Wilhelm Scream”, was absolutely mind-blowing. The contrast and mixture between his skilled voice and the synthetic white noise building up to an epic crescendo were so deeply moving that gave me goosebumps and got my friend red faced.

On stage James was shy, ostensibly nervous, but focused. Despite all the media coverage he is getting he didn’t act like a pretentious future-to-be star, in fact, before he started performing he was hanging in front the stage as everyone else, and when he was asked to sign records by his fans (me being one of them) he quietly said: “I’m not used to this kind of thing”. He also played his single “Limit to your love” second on the setlist and didn’t give an encore, thus distancing himself from the many massively ego pumped artists out there.

As unpretentious is his character, the same I think about his music. He’s doing his thing sincerely, with focus, because he loves it and he knows how to do it, without taking an easy, foreseeable road, but looking out for novelty.

Some might think that the fact that he chose Feist’s cover to be his first single is everything but novelty, although the originality can be seen in the way – in his words – “there are elements of the other EPs and the earlier dancefloor stuff” yet simultaneously he takes distance from them by offering something somehow more acoustic than what he had been providing his DJ set fans with.

I’ve already heard a few people saying that they don’t understand why “everyone is getting so gaga about James Blake” (ahém J-diz), that “he has ripped off Feist” (ahém Athénais) and other negative comments, but the reason why I support this, in my opinion, rising star is that he’s not the first DJ out there turning into a singer and composer, but he’s got much more dept into him than that. He managed to draw all his influences together to create some witty, thoughtful electronic music.

I wish everyone had the opportunity to see him live, if not, take a listen to his album. Hate it or love it, it’s worth listening.

You can listen to James Blake on Spotify here, and be sure to check out some other featured songs from our blog too!

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. j-diz permalink
    February 10, 2011 1:44 pm

    Great read Marinaman – you’ve got me really excited to listen to his album now.

  2. Athénaïs permalink
    February 10, 2011 9:16 pm

    Oh nooo, I’m so ashamed now to have criticised him badly!! It’s just that Limit to your love is my favourite on Feist’s album so I got quite touchy about it! But to tell you the truth, I love his version too! Your article is so nicely written and it really makes me wanna listen to him! Clap clap clap!

    • marininhadias permalink
      February 10, 2011 9:21 pm

      No shame allowed! You just gave me one more reason to try and prove he’s a brilliant musician 😉

  3. jouliejools permalink
    February 10, 2011 10:38 pm

    What I told you earlier is so true! Now, I promise I will try to listen to him with a new ear..

  4. Chris Bingo permalink
    February 14, 2011 7:58 pm

    Great review, just getting the album now. Can’t fault the guy on what I’ve heard so far. Will be playing this full pelt on the drive to work for the next few weeks at least!

  5. Robbie Bizzle permalink
    February 17, 2011 9:17 am

    James Blake has a great sound and a great album, and the fact that his sultry and nervous vocals carry are reflected in his live demeanour indicates to me the honesty of his recordings, and his music in general. This is one I’ll be listening to for a while, nice article Marina!

  6. Robbie Bizzle permalink
    February 17, 2011 9:18 am

    James Blake has a great sound and a great album, and the fact that his sultry and nervous vocals are reflected in his live demeanour indicates to me the honesty of his recordings, and his music in general. This is one I’ll be listening to for a while, nice article Marina!

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