What we’re listening to (#19) – ‘James Blake’ by James Blake

James Blake – Mercury Prize winner and Grammy nominated electronic/post-dubstep producer, singer-songwriter, and remixer (under the name Harmonix).

After releasing the Klavierwerke EP (German for ‘piano works’) for his second-year assignment at Goldsmiths University, he released his self-titled debut studio album under his own record label ATLAS, supported by A&M Records.

Relying on original samples (i.e. sampling his own vocals rather than other artists), Blake creates an often minimalistic-based yet full sounding atmosphere, his soulful, whispering voice being bent and manipulated to haunting effect.

Opener ‘Unluck’, unsettling and peculiar, shows Blake’s ability to build crescendos to claustrophobic effect, the simple synth that opens the song being enveloped by distortion, backed by an irregular drum beat. His vocals later take centre-stage, being gradually processed like the synthesizer, the wobbly breakdown laid under his pitched vocals, repeating different variations of only six lines to incredible effect.


‘The Wilhelm Scream’ follows, a cover of Blake’s father’s ‘Where to Turn’, which is clearly much more acoustically-based than his son’s formulation. Again, a filtered synth opens up the song, a simple drum pattern to back. Again, lyrically, there a few lines, just two verses which are repeated, building with synths which are slowly eaten away with overdrive and waves of ambient noise to powerful effect.

“All that I know is,
I’m falling, falling, falling, falling
Might as well fall in”

Other highlights include a cover of Feist’s ‘Limit to Your Love’, based around a masterfully employed sub-bass, a reverb-laden piano, and Blake’s crooning vocals. Removing the optimistic introduction and bridge of the original, this version is a much more heart-wrenching rendition, the crescendo being a patterned bass-pattern over a simple bass-snare groove with an 808-life ride cymbal.


The beauty of many of the songs on this album is that Blake can reproduce them to incredible levels of similarities live – this record contains instrumentation and vocals that go well beyond James Blake’s then 22-year-old, so the fact that he can emulate the same sounds live is a great feat that is rare in this decade of music.

Blake’s style can be tiring at some points, most evidenced in ‘I Never Learnt to Share’, there only being one line repeated throughout the whole song, and sometimes it does feel like he’s manipulating and adding effects just for the sake of it, but listening to the double-billed ‘Lindisfarne’ will answer most questions as to why he pursues his chosen stylistic path of music

This article was written by Mo Hafeez. 


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