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Positive Feedback ISSUE 59
january/february 2012


James Blake Pours Out More Thunder
by Michael Mercer


james blake

James Blake, Enough Thunder EP


James Blake's career has blossomed in the last year or so. He's managed to pierce through pop culture in some of the most unlikely of places. It's a great feeling, when you find out about an artist, fall in love with their music, and you watch their impact rise as their journey matures. We were watching this show on network television recently called Parenthood, and we began to hear this unique cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" in the background. It was a dramatic scene (the character reflecting on a troubled relationship, fraught with alcoholism and all the turmoil that comes with it). Alexandra (my wife, whom I used to call the "Queen of A&R", as she's got an encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to pop music) immediately identified it as James Blake. I thought; no way in hell, he's a dubstep artist (well, shame on me for being so quick to pigeon-hole Blake that way). She was spot on as usual, so when Dave Clark and I went record shopping at Fingerprints in Long Beach I was pumped to find the cover on this EP! That song makes this record worth the money in my book. The rest were a bonus! The funny thing is: That song is not indicative (stylisticly) of the rest of the tracks on this EP. While the Mitchell cover is an interpretation of a folk classicóthe rest of the EP is full of subdued electronic music with a touch of R&B Those familiar with Blake's self-titled LP should enjoy Enough Thunder (though it gets even dimmer than his previous work, if that's even possible).

"Once We All Agree" opens things up in total darkness. Distant, ambient pads slap and echo away as Blake pounds out these haunting piano strokes. His vocal isn't a slice of sunshine either, and I wondered whether this was going to be his Sea Change (a gorgeous record by Beckóone of my favorites in factóbut while it effortlessly captured a "break up album" mystique, I admittedly craved some light, a little positivity after getting through that record). Blake's digging even deeper into his emotions here, the music sounds like heartache One of the things that stands out about Blake's arrangements is his strong grasp of how to properly use space like any other instrument (as I stated in the review of his first LP). He uses silence as a tool, so while his compositions may sound sparse on the surface it's easy to derive intense feelings from his music. The openness draws you in, engages you, and creates this feeling of intimacy that few artists manage to accomplish.

"We Might Feel Unsound" sounds like the title suggests. There is an unnerving shutter about the looped, floating synth line, weaving in and out of minimal percussive stabs and vocal samples. Here the music sounds more akin to Burial than James Blake (the focus is seemingly pulled off the vocal; while it's certainly present, it's used more as another compositional element than it is the focal point of the track. He gets some help from Bon Iver on "Fall Creek Boys Choir." There is an r&b-like cadence here, a sort of swing to this track that, when mixed with Blake's darkened electronic flavors, sounds like the dubstep version of a song from D'Angelo's timeless Voodoo record. "Not Long Now" offers up more minimal darkness, surrounding his wispy vocals with clicky drum loops. A nasty bass-line pumps like a kick drum, humming and oscillating slowly towards the build-up of the track. The velocity of the bass pounds but remains focused (this is a constant in his music: Tremendous bass that doesn't overshadow the rest of the elements).

Blake's voice has a unique character that lends itself perfectly to this type of music. The timbre can live deep within a track or seemingly float on-top of it. There's a caverness quality to it, so things tend to sound a bit darker at times, but it also accentuates his vulnerability. There simply isn't anybody that sounds like Blake (or, I should say, he doesn't sound like anybody else). Fans of ambient or pop, dub step, two-step, and whatever the hell step it is this week, (leaning towards the experimental) should enjoy Enough Thunder. Be sure your subwoofers are tuned properly! This music will certainly show you if your system has a weakness when it comes to the lower octaves. Fortunately, Blake (and his engineers) knows how to get the mix right so the bottom end doesn't trample over everything else.

This music stands out, and that makes it interesting sonically. What an enjoyable listening experience, when you find something that grabs you in a new way. While the overall theme maybe ambient (or dubstep, whatever you'd like to call it) there's one thing you hear without having to over-classify things: It sounds fresh, plain and simple. At a time where every product seems like a carbon-copy of the one that came before it, that's a refreshing journey to take. If you're a fan of this sound and you haven't heard of James Blake before: I strongly urge you to check him out.