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James Blake

James Blake

Rating: 4.4/5.0

Label: Atlas/A&M

Releasing three EPs in 2010, all of which got steady blog and critical attention, James Blake quickly made a name for himself before a debut album had even arrived. CMYK, Bells Sketch and Klavierwerke showed the producer and classically-trained musician had a wide range of taste, ability and ambition. It’s no coincidence then that James Blake is a continuation and fusion of all three of those EPs, as it demonstrates equal amounts of restraint, experimentation and aspiration.

The cold and calculated atmosphere of James Blake is established immediately on the opener “Unluck.” Percussive electronics, shallow synth beats and Blake’s distant, Auto-Tuned vocals convey a soundscape that falls somewhere in between the CMYK and Klavierwerke EPs. Blake employs a similar tactic on “Lindisfarne I” and “I Mind,” obscuring his vocals with touches of reverb and distortion, or placing them way back in the mix. At times, you have to struggle to hear the underlying melody, but it’s a satisfying struggle. Every look behind the walls of electronics reveals an overwhelming sense of craftsmanship.

On tracks such as “The Wilhelm Scream” and the Feist cover “Limit To Your Love,” Blake strips down his sound and lets his classical training shine through. Alongside bare-bones piano and synth, Blake’s vocals become the center of attention, showing both strength and wistfulness. Even during these more simplistic moments, Blake can’t help but subvert the traditional arrangements and obscure the track as it continues to build. There’s a certain amount of sterility to Blake’s clear and conscious voice that contrasts the dark electronic touches, resulting in a sound that, though initially conflicted, quickly amalgamates into something moving and captivating.

Blake’s intense focus on melody is strikingly evident on songs like “I Never Learnt To Share” and the stunning closer “Measurements,” where Blake allows his Antony Hegarty-like voice to soar above the arrangements. On “Share,” a true highlight of the album, Blake builds his voice from the ground up, one layer at a time. It’s a structure that builds tension, depth and beauty with every additional line, further accentuated by the brooding synth fills, dark piano lines and staccato electric guitar. It’s a haunting and moving experience made all the more mesmerizing by Blake’s lyrical repetition.

This track best exemplifies the draw of James Blake as a whole. Blake continually manipulates small pieces of each song in the hopes that, by focusing on the construction of the individual trees, the forest will naturally emerge. The way “Why Don’t You Call Me” moves along at a subtle pace before falling off into an empty space that’s attached to “I Mind” shows an admirable amount of attention paid to the craft of transitions, layers, silence and echoing themes of isolation. At such an early point in his career, James Blake seems totally in control of his craft. James Blake is filled with small moments of significance that build upon each other, forming a vast, astonishing record with an undeniable amount of emotional power. One can only imagine where Blake goes from here.

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