Wednesday, 10 April 2013

James Blake - Overgrown


First rule of both poker and music critiquing alike: leave emotion at the door. Never, for one minute let personal affliction or personified prevalence affect the way you experience, study, analyze - and thus ultimately decide a score for - an album with which may or may not have some manner of conflict with yourself. Whether that be taste, perception, or something more politically/philosophically close to mind, albums are singular and are as much individual rights of expression, because of it. The moment I stepped away from fellow countrymen James Blake's self-titled debut, I was lost; filled with an overwhelming void of unfilled expectation. Yes, I was disappointed both in its substance and its sparse analogy of what it was attempting to reach out to me in. So to continue on my musically consuming ways to find the album top many critics' and fans' best-of lists of 2011 - hailed as what I took as it being something completely ordinary and uniquely imaginative - was bizarre to think of a more neutral-standing, yet equally strong choice of words. It's a fork in the road admittedly, and another prime example as to tastes differentiating where extremes dictate which direction you end up going in. Where I admire Blake's graceful, minimalist take into blues-esque dubstep-origined electronic melodies, in equal measure, I criticize for its lack of depth. And more-so - as it came off to me - a fairly one-dimensional shift in instrumentation and song-writing across a very spacious just-under-forty minute record.

Where the easy slip-road off this new road in opinion would be to simply disregard future endeavors by James Blake as simply a waste of time, as noted, emotion is never something someone should take into an album review. So it's with 2013's follow-up Overgrown that I come rightly prepared: new stance, same old methodologies. And of course, a blank slate of which, by the end, I hope to fill. The self-titled opening track helps me on my introductory way and is a pleasant rediscovery back into Blake's eery realm of song-writing. There's more of a focus on instrumentation; high-hat percussion beats melding with the trickling, softening piano chords that lay underneath it all. Blake's vocals too come off a lot better placed and involved with the piece. Most of all, there's no real dominance or evidence of him trying to emphasize, or put emphasis, so much on his vocals - the music doing justice with the space provided as it slowly climbs up from the cloud of obscurity into this later sweep of strings, shuddering cymbal crashes and piano still dressed in that familiar vague physicality which works wonders to the emotion of the piece.

So it's ultimately deflating that follower I Am Sold acts as a repertoire to Blake's previous comfort zone of simple effect-laden piano chords and relying - almost to the point of desperation - so heavily on his own voice's possible strength. Here, however, the execution doesn't pay off as well. And this is not only because Blake's repetitious cries to 'speculate what we feel' exaggerate rather than illustrate the emotion being presented. So too it's his focus on the electronic beats present, that don't feel as married or as tied together with what is still a melodically-dictated song.  And much like the instrumentation choice, the effects with which Blake uses on this album don't necessarily offer variance or even an illusion of variation conceptually. Life Round Here still finds itself caught in this dazed, weightless, spacious awe Blake was so fond of sticking to on his previous record. Though despite the mix-up of synthesizer usage offering at least some intrigue - in parts rhythmically suggestive, in others elementarily engaging and conjured - it only goes to highlight Blake's weakness in creating concentric emotion. More-so, the direction and overall interconnection with the actual music doesn't, to me, convince me what or where it is this track is meant to be heading towards.

Bizarrely, where Blake opens himself out widest to what may be explicable vulnerability is when the track as a whole devotes himself to going down an entirely new musical avenue altogether. RZA's involvement on Take A Fall For Me may come off, on first look, to be quite the bewildering chalk-and-cheese moment. But surprisingly, RZA's lyrics; profound, spilling-out and deeply focused, match incredibly well to Blake's RnB-flavoured keyboards, beats and vocal samples that come calling in from out the backdrop. While Blake does play the backing vocalist role on this track, which ultimately leads me onto my next point of concern, I can't help but continue feeling a sense of lost potential in that the melodic ideas are here, but the execution is sparse and without real merited substance. Retrograde is an example of James Blake trying too hard to make-do with the minimal palette he's left himself. While I can understand - as many RnB artists seem to be following just-as-rightfully - with emphasizing the humanity and vulnerability of a given circumstance, Blake unfortunately falters in (as previously noted) this dizzied desperation in finding something amid the emptiness. While Blake's playful toying with his vocal tone and pitch does lend to some interesting textures, materialistically, the track lacks any real depth or prevailing accomplishment in what it's trying to achieve. It's not helped by the rather amateurish slow nod of drum beats that if anything, equate to - as much as they subject to - the track's underdeveloped foundation.

The piano, whenever not being electronically tampered with - or being subjected to contorting into some spacious, stretch of shapeless obscurity - can lend itself well to providing Blake with an opportunity to develop his harmonic and progressive areas of song-writing. Unfortunately, given how strong a singer he might be - and thus how clearly he knows he can express such lyrics - when the decision is taken to offer unfiltered, unaffected musical sounds, there needs to be a clear-cut focus on which sounds and which layers preside over the rest. DLM while careful to manage within its means, doesn't do as well in regards to balancing the emphasis between the music and the vocals. Blake comes off as if he's wanting to be at the forefront in one moment, yet gladly willing to stand in the shadows in the next. And more crucially, when the solitary piano hits its lower tones and slower paced deliverance, Blake feels even less connected and infused with what is the piano is expressing. Even with the delicate-soon-heavy presence of harmonic voices thereafter, there's no taken away from how much stature this track is lacking in. Blake's more interesting shifts between vocal and musical emphasis lies in tracks like Digital Lion which encompasses a rather more house or dub-leniant course of action with its electronics. Fortunately, where Blake expresses himself at his highest, is when the beats are not at their most engaging or direct. And vice versa, when the track ends on this sumptuous, rolling lead of sub-bass and percussion, Blake comes off knowing what level or manner of vocals to present without necessarily indulging in them.

But this is only the case, and by which succeeds as a collective of layers and effects, when Blake takes to focusing on more electronic-driven showcasing of expression, by its own. And likewise if the choice is for melody or organic instrumentation, Blake's strength is when he isn't switching too drastically between the two. Voyeur can be given the benefit of the doubt as far as denoting its more experimental, personally-venturous escalades into new compositions. Unfortunately in this case, the musical stand-point and themes with which Blake is aiming for, don't come off as strongly as other tracks. While the mixing of fields has worked on his debut, though the genres with which Blake is clearly borrowing from here - RnB, soul, a bit of techno, some house elements too - don't feel as gelled together or as worked around. The only saving grace is that the closing minute, when vocals are all but removed from the forefront, does lend itself well to creating an interesting palette of textures and fogged-up tones in Blake's method of working. And once more, the only favourable positive that can be taken from closer Our Love Comes Back is that Blake shows a clear desire to express acute, perhaps hidden, presence in texture. The crunchy, high-pitch frost of synthesizers that grit and scrape in the backdrop are what interest me more. That's despite Blake's prestigious attempt at having the piano lead be the musical focus here. Had it not been for what remains this fairly cluelessly-led, sparseness of direction and reason as to Blake's treatment of these chords (chords which are neither exciting nor progressively inviting) and vocals, I might have believed the focus to be just.

To counteract my despondency - clearly reminding myself past emotions should [still] be waiting, like neatly-aligned shoes or peg-hung jackets, by the front door - James Blake is at the very least, maintaining a clear-cut professionalism in development and passion for the music he crafts. Production-wise, Overgrown owes its strengths to Blake's less hostilely secluded direction and more to what comes off as a persistent ushering of set ideals unafraid to speak what's really at the heart of matters. Unfortunately, Blake remains unwilling to shrug off the monkey-on-the-shoulder that is his deliberate limiting of sounds to a handful of sources, synthesizers/drum machines and vocal tones that offer little to denote Blake as someone not stuck in the same musical corner. My problem with this album - as I had, in vaster portions, on his debut - is how so clearly limited and, because of it, unwilling Blake is in removing one's self from this letting-sounds-hang-in-the-air risk/reward gamble on the ethereal after-effect. The ambience of the set-up leaves too much negative space to the point it's less a decorative mode of conveyance, and more just...well...space. The emptiness too in his song-writing is clear to see. And while the ideas - at their rawest forms - are more prevailing and fruitful, the execution still lacks. It's ironic then that it was his debut that I felt showed more passion and potential to succeed, even if it ultimately came off as both lacking as well as outright lazy in its expression. What's more worrying, regardless of how passionate the lyrics here concerning romance, relationships, anxiety and close bonds are, is that the bliss and brokenness of these themes has only rose-tinted the blunt detail of his music. I'd like to think James Blake isn't the shallow type, or simply ignorant of his own [artistic] limitations. But this corner of sound owes a lot to the power of simplicity, and Blake it seems is just another humble guy carving a gentle self-discovered path for himself. It's a shame then, even with a follow-up, Blake is still a fair few slabs and bricks short of finishing it.
~Jordan

5.4

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