Album Review: James Blake

James Blake - James Blake (2011) | ★★★★☆

The streets of the underground music scene are whispering: dubstep is dead and James Blake is animating its corpse. The neo-techno beats may be bumping through Brooklyn as we speak, but they're fading fast.

Though Blake is the leader of a new movement, the music in his self-titled album does not sound like the work of a genius on first listen.

Blake's songs are more strangely haunting than instantly enjoyable, with beats that move at a snail's pace and lyrics that lack profundity. The result is a kind of lethargic, impossible dance music – a brooding yin to dubstep's irreverent yang.

It is through this minimalist approach that Blake pushes dubstep toward a new genre altogether. While his beats are clearly inspired by dubstep, Blake has hollowed out and boiled his sound down to basic elements. His production starkly contrasts the traditionally overwhelming layers of syncopated drumbeats and thumping bass that ricochet off the walls of the dubstep dance floor.

Blake is a master of silence. This is made evident in "Lindesfarne I," easily one of the best tracks on the album. The halting melody lingers over each pause in the music, letting the listener mull over the absence of sound in the space between the notes.

Another highlight comes from the track "The Wilhelm Scream," named after the clichéd scream of horror movies. Its title creates an irony between the flowing nature of the song and the jarring sound of a shrill scream. Hearing the song is more like watching a waterfall in slow motion, the sweetly distorted chorus cascading over a rustling drumbeat.

Blake is not the world's greatest lyricist, but he has a surprisingly soulful voice for a skinny English guy. His beautiful cover of "Limit to Your Love" transforms Feist's gently lilting song into a ghostly landscape of electronic harmonization. The trembling bass invokes a delicate eeriness that echoes throughout the entire album.

Where other artists suffer in their reliance upon the vocoder, Blake skillfully turns it into an instrument of its own right on the track "I Never Learnt to Share." It is only on tracks like "To Care (Like You)" and "Measurements" that the distinctive whine of Auto-Tuned instruments and vocals teeters into the realm of T-Pain.

Trendy bloggers have disparaged the increasing commercialization of dubstep, considering the embrace of the genre by more mainstream artists (Britney Spears, anybody?) and even small-town bars to be its final death sentence.

But Blake is taking dubstep someplace new. It's time for real music lovers to slow down, catch their breath and experience an album best suited for the quiet darkness of night. Be prepared, for listening often leads to dreams more twisted than sweet.



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