February 9, 2011
One of the few downsides about music last year was the rise of a half-breed variation of lo-fi that took its overplayed production value and married it with R&B undertones. Critics warmed up to the style by lauding releases from genre lifer, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, and the debut by newcomer, How to Dress Well, but AwkwardSound didn't bite at the idea. Amid all this, quietly building buzz in the background was James Blake. Blake is an experimental electronic producer out of the UK whose string of 2010 EPs have put him en route to becoming one of the biggest breakout talents in music this year. His previous efforts consist of shifty, instrumental minimalist dubstep, but on his debut self-titled album, Blake opts for accessibility that will likely find universal acclaim outside this site.
It's not to say it isn't an acquired taste. As much as music should be persistently challenging and push the boundaries of conventionalism, James Blake is excruciatingly polarizing and stylistically nauseating. While Blake's way of arranging each sound and texture (or lack there of) is respectably unique and intricately designed, his music more often than not falls flat in a hollow shell of sound during its attempt to deconstruct pop music and build it back from the ground up in simpler context. Sporadic computer blips among other electronic samples come and go between extended pauses ("The Wilhelm Scream," "Why Don't You Call Me?,") delicately stroked piano keys are restrained within an overwhelming silence ("Limit To Your Love," "Give Me My Month,") and Blake's voice is modulated through a Vocoder -- an "instrument" AwkwardSound would love to see put to bed for good ("I Never Learned to Share", "Lindisfarne I," "Lindisfarne II.") Take away the latter, and you're left with another Caucasian crooner who really is no different than an Antony Hegarty or Francis Starlite without the transparent pretensions.
The quietness is really the album's greatest frustration as it seems too constricted, opening the door to an anticipation and eagerness for something big to happen that ultimately never does. James Blake's attempt to reinvent pop is admirable on a surface level, but in the same way we hold mainstream pop music negatively accountable for relying on overproduced, sheen studio trickery to fool a casual music audience, we should do the same here to Blake for doing the exact opposite. James Blake is pop music dressed naked, regurgitated into fragments and called "art." Ultimately, what we have here is the music of 2011's take on "The Emperor's New Clothes."
James Blake's James Blake will be released TBA on Universal Republic Records.
Labels: Album Reviews