James Blake

Album Review: James Blake - James Blake

When we reviewed James Blake's Klavierwerke EP last year one track really stood out for us - 'I Only Know (What I Know Now)' - due to it's minimal approach. The hype machine has been running at full tilt since that EP dropped and Blake's first single-proper from his self-titled debut, a cover of Feist's 'Limit To Your Love', created a bit of a watershed moment.

Fact: James Blake no longer makes dub-step. Actually BlackPlastic would argue he never really did. There are those that see the result as a commercial betrayal of the scene and there are those that see the resulting change in direction as far more innovative and exciting than what would have been possible if Blake had continued to focus on one specific genre. This album definitely puts this reviewer in the latter camp.

'I Only Know...' boasted a beautiful, raw understated approach to production and that same approach runs like a seam throughout this whole album. It is so distinctive that it almost feels like a concept.

And at times the result is truly, utterly staggering. Forthcoming single 'The Whilhelm Scream' is probably the best example. For the majority of the song's five minutes there is rarely more than a couple of things happening at any one time - a vocal runs throughout but besides that there are a smattering of clicks and beats and some soft electronic melodies, the occasional wave of distortion. But there is a point at around three-minutes in which sees the background (the clicks, whirs and distortion) become the foreground and the foreground (Blake's bruised vocal) become the background. It may sound like hyperbole but stick it on through some decent headphones or a good stereo and it is utterly staggering - worth the cost of the album on its own in fact.

And while James Blake may no longer be constrained by dub step that doesn't mean there aren't elements from  that genre here. In fact, the impact of dub step on Blake's song writing and production techniques are writ large across the ambient patterns, ticks and space of all of these songs. It is quite simple: 'The Whilhelm Scream' wouldn't be possible without dub step.

The criticisms are valid insomuch that this is undoubtedly the dub step album for your mum and the auto-tuned vocals innevitably feel a little over used. Everything about Blake's album screams that this is a guy needing to expose his soul but who is afraid to do so - the songs and vocals are deliberately obscured, scuffed and distorted. It is this filter that makes them so interesting yet it is difficult to hear the acapella start to 'Lindisfarne I' without thinking about Imogen Heap and dodgy hip-hop records.

These are minor quibbles though - the 'Lindisfarne I' minimal vocal exists to provide a counterweight to 'Lindisfarne II', where the vocal is set against a jerky folk backing. As Blake sings about people flying too high it almost sounds as though the song has taken its first shaky step out of the nest.

And aside from minimalism it is contrast that this record does best. Take the tale of sibling rivalry that is 'I Never Learnt To Share', which starts with a soulful vocal - "My brother and my sister refuse to talk to me, but I don't blame them" Blake repeats (confusingly he is an only child, leaving the listener to guess at the song's true meaning). By the song's climax there is a heavy bass line and squelchy synth in the front of the mix with the whole thing having seemingly evolved from one extreme to another without you even noticing the joins.

These songs are stripped bare to the point the production would be better dubbed anti-production. The closing few tracks perhaps demonstrate this best - 'Why Don't You Call Me?' jumps around like a distorted memory with the parts all in the wrong place. It puts the idea first and lets it roll around inside your head like the memories you can't possibly leave behind. the more you think about the them the more distorted and oblique they become. Final track 'Measurements' leaves all the tricks at the door, delivering a fairly straight but layered soul number.

More than anything this is just one of those albums you need to have heard and that you need to have an opinion about. Love it or hate it you cannot deny the ambition and because of that we can't wait to see what happens next.

BP x

James Blake is out now, available from Amazon.co.uk on CD, LP and MP3 [affiliate links].

The Obligatory Best of 2010 List - Part Two

Following on from Part One, here they are... Our favourite nine albums of 2010:


9. Crooks & Lovers - Mount Kimbie

This year saw dub step evolve. Having previously felt like an excuse for people who should know better to listen to garage some of the genre's pioneers began to, well, actually pioneer. And the innovation really came from combining the music with other genres. Mount Kimbie's debut is a perfect example - tempered with a bit of intelligent soul you suddenly had a classic on your hands, particularly on the standout 'Before I Move Off'.

8. Total Life Forever - Foals

It shouldn't really have worked... Following their acclaimed status prior to the release of their debut album (and subsequent fall from grace when it disappointed some), Foals returned with a more melodic, accessible and populist album. And it was also the best thing they have produced yet.

Criticism has been levelled at Total Life Forever on the basis that it contains too many songs to appeal to summer festival goers. Which basically means it has too many songs people will actually like. Go figure.

By stripping back the math-rock and building some actual songs Foals made an album containing several of this year's best songs. And it isn't just the sings that shine - the production work from Luke Smith is sublime - a gorgeous, melancholic, sun-bleached feeling runs through the record from the dip-in-the-pool-refreshment of 'Blue Blood' through to the desperate 'What Remains'. With not just one but two completely killer tracks ('Spanish Sahara' and '2 Trees') Total Life Forever is already shaping up to be one of 2010's most overlooked albums in the end of year roundups.


7. InnerSpeaker - Tame Imapala

Whatever you think of Tame Impala - little more than plunderers of the past or innovators kick starting a new genre - it's difficult not to get caught up in it all. Sure, the production is epic - thick basslines, rhythms punched out of solid steel and guitars that encircle the listener in proggy bliss - but it is the songs that will keep you coming back, particularly the apathetic bluesy closer 'I Don't Mind'... It's the stoner equivalent of La Roux's 'Bulletproof' and the weird rave bit halfway through never fails to surprise. Genius.

6. Black City - Matthew Dear

Potentially Dear's magnum-opus, Black City builds on everything that has come before and turns it into something original. Darker than ever, it straddles a variety of emotions, at turns alienated, sexually depraved and wounded and needy. 'You Put A Smell On Me' is like Nine Inch Nail's 'Closer' re-made for 2010 - pure, unadulterated filth of the sort that will have you singing things you really shouldn't in public.

5. The Suburbs - Arcade Fire

BlackPlastic still isn't sure if The Suburbs is as good as either of the last two Arcade Fire albums but the fact that the question even lingers means this is an album that deserves a place on the list. A cleaner and sparser record, but potentially all the more weighty for it. On first listen it seemed to lack stand out moments but repeated listens just demonstrate that this is simply because every track is a highlight.  


4. Klavierwerke - James Blake

Not an album but still one of this year's most significant releases, James Blake seems to be making it his personal mission to upset hardcore dub step fans by tearing up the rule book, taking the genre's best ideas and running off to make something entirely new with them. 'I Only Know (What I Know Now)' is the sound of a man learning from his past mistakes. It is also this year's most emotive five minutes.

3. Vampires With Dreaming Kids / Color Your Life - Twin Sister

Not an album but really a double pack EP, this nonetheless was the sound of one of 2010's most promising bands. With the stripped back aesthetic of the XX, the rawness of early Yeah Yeah Yeahs and what sounds like sterling taste in 1980s pop music at their best the influences combine to make something marvellous, as on the slow burning 'The Other Side of Your Face'. Twin Sister will be ones to watch in 2011.

2. This Is Happening - LCD Soundsystem

If albums were judged on artwork alone This Is Happening would have owned this year. With its minimal type combined with that picture of James Murphy flying through the air in his suit it really felt like a statement of intent.

Whatever. This Is Happening is regardless one of the best things to come out of any stereo this year. With greater focus than Sound of Silver LCD's latest release felt more like a proper album. And with the monstrous bass of 'Dance Yrself Clean', the middle-aged-guy-having-an-epiphany gut-wrencher that is 'All I Want' and the subtly epic 'Home' it also had the tunes. It may not have another 'Someone Great' but it's the sound of one of our times' best bands all grown up.


1. Cosmogramma - Flying Lotus

It says a lot when a record has increasing amounts of praise heaped on it the longer it has been out. He may not have won a Grammy but he has made 2010's best album - a record that fuses genres like they don't even matter. The J Dilla comparisons are perhaps inevitable but Cosmogramma is no mere re-tread - it demonstrates that Flying Lots is one of the most innovative producers of our time.


So what are your thoughts? What did we miss?

EP Review: Klavierwerke EP - James Blake

Sure, accuse us of hyperbole, but James Blake's latest EP is what genius would sound like if you distilled it down to twenty-minutes of music and then just let it be.

Nowhere is this demonstrated more confidently than on the already hyped-to-shit 'I Only Know (What I Know Now)'. What makes this record so good? It's Blake's confidence in his own conviction. He basically takes one really good idea, marinades it, lets the thing infuse for a moment and then kills it. Moby made two whole fucking albums based on old soul samples that all sound the same. Here James Blake has taken one gorgeous snippet of a vocal and simply made the best record you could out of it. And that is the genius - there is no kitchen sink here, just one idea the composer really believed in.

BlackPlastic has long held dubstep to be speed garage for people with beards and, well, it is. But then this isn't really dubstep - it's just the best things to ever come out of the dubstep scene.

BP x

The Klavierwerke EP is out now on R&S Records, available from Amazon.co.uk on MP3.