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A Magazine for Sheffield

James Blake

Annoyingly talented 22-year-old James Blake was possibly the bass music buzz artist of 2010. His two EPs showcased a production style that was technically accomplished from a traditional, compositional standpoint, as well as from an electronic one, setting him apart from many of his contemporaries. After being named one of the BBC's Sound of 2011 artists, the interest of the general public was piqued and it is perhaps not surprising that his debut album was leaked over a month ahead of the official launch. The new record sees Blake strip back his already minimal aesthetic, eschewing all but delicate traces of the genres that informed his early sound and leaving plenty of room for his own voice to enter, a bold and somewhat unusual choice for an electronic producer these days. Whether it was a wise one is hard to say. The record is best judged on the merits of each individual track, rather than as a whole, as the same tricks that Blake employs to stunning effect on some tracks fall flat on others.

Opener 'Unluck' is a perfect example of things not coming off as you might hope. Several elements key to Blake's new direction are there, all sounding crisply mastered, but here the stuttering pad drones, auto-tuned vocals and minimal beat seem to get in each other's way, as if by focusing so intently on the minutae of tiny variations and stereo effects the feel for a greater structures was diminished. 'Wilhelm's Scream' is a stronger track, with some beautifully executed expanding and contracting sounds surrounding the vocals, but again Blake's vocals sit slightly awkwardly at the front, and it is only when they are stripped back that the track reaches its peak. 'I Never Learnt To Share' also keeps vocals very much at the front of the mix, but in this instance Blake's complex harmonic understanding is better utilised. The strange cadences between the various vocal lines and the vintage synth backing, whilst not being a necessarily comfortable listen, work to create a more absorbing atmosphere than the openers. 'Lindisfarne I' and 'Lindisfarne II' make similar use of vocal harmonies as their backbone, creating an interesting timbre over a lightly-affected folk guitar backing and sombre beat.

The most hyped tune on the album, and the one most likely to be a successful single release, is Blake's cover of Feist's 'Limit To Your Love'. It features his voice in a more unadulterated form, which is not unpleasant, but it could be better if he allowed another vocalist to take the limelight, as the song's soul-influenced dubstep approach, which is well executed but frankly a little bland, isn't the best partner for Blake's fragile delivery. The tune will satisfy many with its nod towards currently popular styles, but seems unoriginal by comparison to the piano-led 'Give Me My Month' that follows it. The same contrast exists between the lacklustre 'I Mind' and the haunting gospel harmonies of 'Measurements'.

The jumping to and fro between genuinely original and touching compositions and those which are simply well produced extensions of musical atmospheres which have dominated the progressive side of garage throughout the past couple of years make this album hard to review. Perhaps the ingenuity and skill exhibited at points raise the bar too high, because although there are tracks that show Blake as one of the most exciting artists in Britain today, the record itself is inconsistent in terms of originality if not quality of production. A slight shame, considering some of the material here is on a level with the very best music being released today.