Mar 01, 2011 Web Exclusive
When broken down, there’s nothing terribly unique about the building blocks of James Blake’s eponymous debut. Soulful vocals—more Motown than anytown—are flattened with (shutter) vocoder, and stirred into minimalist beats. It’s an oddball gathering of elements that one imagines could have been developed any singer/songwriter desperate to elevate his work past the bar and into the limelight. However, the odd assemblage works thanks to Blake’s ability to recognize a hook, leaving him as a go-to guy for gestalt—even if the ghost of Jamie Lidell’s back catalogue hangs heavy over the proceedings.
Despite talk of his status as “post-dub step,” at heart Blake is a soul man. The beats are there—often Dntel-like in their glitchy un-adornment—but it’s really Blake’s ability to force them into traditional structure that makes this project so interesting. “Why Don’t You Call Me” could have been a torch song in any genre, for any performer, male or female. A slowly building chorus of voice and synths saves “Unluck” from becoming mere background music, while “Measurements” gloriously calls to mind any number of spirituals updated for the digital era.
The highs are notable. The problem is, Blake has put himself in a tight box, and when he strays out of it the material wavers, swinging between the impressive disconnect of the chanted chorus and overwhelming instrumentals of “I Never Lernt to Share,” or overall staleness of “Lindisfarne 1,” (which could have been merged into the far superior part 2).
And then there’s the vocoder—a production choice that—even on the best tracks—throws major barriers between the album being a potential classic and mere curiosity. Vocally, Blake clearly has nothing to hide. His Feist cover “Limit to Your Love,” which made the Internet rounds last year (and is thankfully included here), showcases his voice at its velvety best—easily outstripping the original. Elsewhere, such as the painfully brief piano and voice interlude “Give Me My Voice,” his unwavering sincerity gives Antony a run for his money. Blake may not be wise beyond his years, but his voice is an instrument rarely gifted to 22-year-olds. So then why hide it under a bushel? What starts out as ear-catching addition on the opening track becomes tiresome 10 songs later—painting over the gold of what could otherwise be considered a successful experiment in saying more with less. (www.jamesblakemusic.com)
Author rating: 6/10
Average reader rating: 9/10