Sorry for my absence the past couple of weeks. Rest assured, I’m still listening to and thinking about music and philosophy, I just haven’t had the proper inspiration to write in a while. But, today while working through my Google Reader, I saw that the much talked about London-based musician James Blake appeared in session on BBC 1 host Zane Lowe’s radio show (listen here), most probably due to his debut album James Blake being released in the UK today. I have a lot thoughts and opinions about Blake’s debut as well as the coverage it’s receiving and his radio show appearance, so if you’ll indulge me, below is some editorializing:
I, like many of the mp3-crazed, leak-loving music downloaders of the world, snatched Blake’s album up when it hit the internet in late December. And, while I don’t agree with the sentiment, I’ve read countless comments claiming that James Blake is possibly the best album of 2011 of 2010.
It’s good. Really good.
Best of 2011 though?
Way too early and a bit overzealous.
Blake’s soft, R&B-tinged voice is the protagonist on a collection of songs constructed where negative space separates sparse electronics. It’s dubstep, as far as my understanding of that genre goes, made palpable, rhythmic at its core yet melodically driven. There is a lot of ingenuity as far as songwriting and production is concerned, with vocal manipulations, panning, and sonic tricks featuring prominently. But, what I like most about this album, and what I believe most listeners will be drawn to, is Blake’s deep, musical understanding. He’s got the “it” factor where melody seeps into even the most subtle musical moments. So, as much as James Blake deserves credit for being fresh/original/groundbreaking, etc., it’s pop, pleasing to the ear more than challenging to the mind.
That being said, I’m still curious about Blake’s songwriting approach. Whenever I hear an electronic musician, I think about the choices they make, what sounds they use and how those sounds are molded. But in the case of Blake, I also wonder about what he doesn’t do, the spaces he leaves and the restraint he exercises. Whereas Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an example of musical maximalism, Blake’s debut shows that a few tricks executed properly is also effective.
During Blake’s appearance on Lowe’s show, he offers a glimpse into his creative process, first by playing live his original “The Wilhelm Scream” and then DJing a song which shows his influence. “The Wilhelm Scream” is the second track on the album and, with its repeated phrase “I’m fallin, fallin, fallin, fallin” serving as a mantra, it moves downward, burying you with the song. It’s beautiful and a personal favorite of mine but during the show Blake tips his hand by DJing a song titled “Where To Turn” by James Litherland, produced by Blake’s father.
Though I haven’t read this anywhere else, “The Wilhelm Scream” draws heavily from “Where To Turn”, making it essentially a cover. Granted, it’s a significant adaptation, different enough to argue that it is a unique song, but it definitely borrows both from the melody and lyrics of the original. I can’t find Litherland’s “Where To Turn” anywhere else on the internet (note: you can now find it here), but my guess is that this topic will soon enter the public discourse. Whether online commenters and talking heads will fault Blake for this, I don’t know, but it is another aspect of his music that deserves consideration, informing our understanding of a young yet much-reported artist.