James Blake – James Blake (2011, ATLAS/A&M Records)

I had seen James Blake’s debut album pop up quite a bit over the Internet since its release almost 2 weeks ago. It was on the front page of the iTunes store, and reviewed on a lot of blogs. So, being curious, I decided to take a listen to the album. I feel almost stupid that I had never before heard of James Blake’s music, because he makes dubstep, which is a genre that I really like, being a fan of Skrillex, Bare Noize, High Rankin, and other artists who I can’t think of at the top of my head. However, this is not your typical dubstep album. Whereas much of dubstep contains the same half-time beats and wobble basses, this is the type of dubstep that doesn’t need to be loud and insane in order to make audiences move. In fact, this is very similar to Burial’s music, where I don’t really see Burial’s music as dubstep, but yet, the influence is undoubtedly there, and most definitely prevalent on this debut LP by James Blake.

The album starts with “Unluck”, which contains a very soulful chord progression along with a half-time dubstep beat full of strange noises that skips and stutters. Also, James Blake’s voice is all over this album, as his voice most definitely brings to mind old soul and R&B records from the 60s and 70s. Also, it should be mentioned that the music is extremely minimal, in which James has said that he was inspired by the success of fellow UK band, the xx, who makes indie pop music that only contains what is needed for great music, and therefore contains a very sparse and minimal style.

“The Wilhelm Scream” is actually a cover of a song by James’s dad, James Litherland, and though I haven’t heard the original, still, James’s soul-inspired dubstep take on the track is impressive, with strangely beautiful sounds and atmospherics all over the track that seem to arise from nowhere. Also, the harmony of James’s vocals is equally beautiful and complement his voice well. Not much I can say about the track, but when you hear it, you’ll understand just how beautiful it is. “I Never Learnt to Share” contains very minimal lyrics that repeat throughout the track (“My brother and my sister don’t speak to me
but I don’t blame them”), with different harmonies on the vocals that change throughout. However, what I really love about this track is the synth work and the beats that occur just before the 2 minute mark, as the beats slowly become more and more fuller, and the synths seem to slowly rise up higher and higher in the scale until it seems to screech harmonically, and at the heart of this incredible climax is a rhythm and synth lead that wanted to make me dance in my seat. Only one can imagine how this will be performed live.

“Lindisfarne I” contains only an acapella full of more soulfulness, but this time disguised behind a vocoder. It would seem to bring to mind Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek”, except that the original vocals is not present at all. Only the vocoder is, and yet, as robotic as vocoders usually are, there is a human element in the vocoded vocals. “Lindisfarne II” continues with the previous track, except that actual vocals are present more, as well as a beat and some synths.

“Limit to Your Love”, the album’s first official single, as well as a cover of Feist’s song of the same name, contains a soulful piano progression and James’s brilliant vocals. However, what is different here is that there is a wobbling sub-bass in most of the song, along with the beats, harmonized vocals, and some delay and reverb effects, which would make this song the most purely sounding dubstep song on the album. It’s a brilliant single that shows how James can almost effortlessly mix minimalism, soul/R&B, and dubstep in the same track, and just to take a tip in case you listen to this, this song needs to be listened to on big speakers. The sub-bass literally made my entire house shake, which was completely unexpected for as sparse as the album is.

“Give Me My Month” is one of the two tracks on the album that is under 2 minutes long. The song contains vocals that sing lyrics such as “Give me my month as a lucky one. Let me see where she has gone. Send me back south with my changed love, I never told her where the fear comes from. Half way through nine, she won’t have come, or seen where I have been in the time we were
undone” along with the sounds of James’s piano. “To Care (Like You)” is another insane track, showcasing dementedly distorted and pitch-bent vocals that are reminiscent of Burial’s time-stretching and pitch-shifting work on the vocals of his 2007 album, “Untrue”, and some awesome minimal dubstep beats. The song basically brings out all of the elements that were introduced over the course of the album, and combines them into one track, which is nevertheless awesome.

“Why Don’t You Call Me?” is the second of the under 2 minute tracks, which contains only these simple lyrics: “Why don’t you call me what we both know I am”, alongside more soulful piano playing, which eventually leads into glitched up piano lines, strange atmospherics, and a vocoder. “I Mind” contains no intelligible vocals, as they are sampled and messed up in the process, let alone there being any lyrics whatsoever for the song due to the intelligibility of the vocals, alongside more skipping dubstep beats full of strange noises, synth and piano lines, and heavy atmospherics. Finally, the album ends with “Measurements”, containing more soulful synth progressions and vocals that can bring tears to the eyes due to its overall beauty, in which eventually, the vocals are harmonized once again, but sound much closer to R&B/soul groups, or perhaps even country groups, where the harmonies sound very natural and human (though there is a hint of Auto-Tune and a vocoder here and there as well). At the end, it also sounds like there are either plucks of guitar, or even just a synth modeling a guitar, but soon after, the vocals stop and the album ends.

Overall, though there were only a very few number of songs I didn’t care for, James Blake’s debut LP is certainly one of the most unique dubstep albums of the year already. The mix of minimalism, soul, and dubstep is certainly something that you wouldn’t in most dubstep, but James pulls it off very well. As sparse as the sound is, it still contains the right amount of elements to make people dance, and in some cases, it may not be the type of album that you could really dance to in the first place. But either way, James’s debut is something different and groundbreaking in the electronic music world. Another album you can expect to be on best-of-the-year lists. Highly recommended listening.

Album: James Blake

Artist: James Blake

Genre: Dubstep/minimal techno/soul

Released 2011 by ATLAS/A&M Records

Available now at all major retailers!

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