Sunday, May 12, 2013

album review: 'overgrown' by james blake (RETRO REVIEW)

Define 'dubstep'.

It's not easy, I reckon. It's the sort of topic that spurs flame wars and heated arguments among music critics and fans alike, particularly in the indie electronica scene. It's difficult to reach consensus on what true dubstep is, and even harder to define good dubstep, a problem only exacerbated further by the mainstream breakout of acts like Skrillex and his collaborations. And as much as I want to avoid the argument over semantics, I can't help but feel that when I say that I'm generally not the biggest fan of dubstep, I'm not conveying the message aptly.

So let me make this clear: I'm not the biggest fan of what one would consider the traditional mainstream dubstep 'sound' - it's an electronic stylistic gimmick blown up to eleven, and it has never really sounded 'epic' or 'kickass' or produced the slightest reaction from me besides general antipathy. Part of this, I think, comes from my love of symphonic and power metal, a genre that approaches 'epic' on all fronts, often to the point of ridiculous cheesiness - to me, dubstep can't really match that Wagner-esque sweep and impact.

But I'll be the first to admit that dubstep, when used correctly, can make for some great songs. For example, Muse appropriated some of the stylistic flourishes and made 'Madness', a jaw-droppingly great song from their messy album The 2nd Law. Imagine Dragons also used some dubstep styling with their surprisingly strong song 'Radioactive'. These two songs, plus an examination of the monstrosities that Skrillex continues to shovel out, seem to indicate two factors on how the dubstep sound could work in the pop setting. Firstly, you need tight control of the sound; it can't be allowed to overpower the track. Why 'Madness' and 'Radioactive' are such great songs comes back to a tightness in the production, letting the traditionally atonal and off-balance dubstep track supplement the mix. Compare this to the disaster of a track 'Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites', a Skrillex track that seems for the first thirty seconds or so to have some control and depth - until it all blows up and the squealing, shrieking hook overwhelms the entire mix and leaves you with a migraine. And this leads into the second factor: the dubstep part of the mix cannot be the only thing used to enhance/amplify the atmosphere. Muse supplemented their dubstep with elaborate choral arrangements and the full strength of the fact that they are a prog/stadium rock act, while Imagine Dragons uses lead singer Dan Reynolds and his amazing voice and energy to provide a counterweight to the dubstep track. Skrillex, on the other hand, supplements his overblown dubstep with obnoxious screeching and lyrics that barely exist. 

It really doesn't help matters that Skrillex also seems to be working with acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit, and while that is tonally consistent, it also links dubstep to some of the most insufferable and terrible acts ever to grace modern music. I've already written extensively on how I can't fucking stand rap rock and rap metal, and to see Skrillex work to revitalize those genres with his popularity just makes my skin crawl. But it also shows a certain stagnation when it comes to the dubstep sound, by pigeonholing it into a certain archetype and tone, which could well lead to limited commercial success.

Fortunately for us all, Skrillex isn't the only musician and producer working with the dubstep sound, and there seems to be plenty of people who are interested in taking dubstep in new directions, and have accrued a certain degree of critical praise for their efforts. And you know, as much as the dubstep 'sound' doesn't really engage me, I must acknowledge that managing to hammer it into some sort of workable music requires real talent.

And with that, let's talk about James Blake.

For those of you who have absolutely no idea who James Blake is, well, I'm not surprised. Despite his ridiculously ordinary name featuring two first names, James Blake is one of the newest entries in the 'post-dubstep' genre. Analogous to what some music critics are calling 'PBR&B' (which, in less pretentious terms, hipster R&B), post-dubstep is the quiet, minimalist dubstep electronica that relies less on the bass drops and more on other, restrained elements. It shares a lot in common with PBR&B, mostly because of the somber subject matter and minimalist beats, and James Blake, a young English singer-songwriter, is one of the major rising stars in this genre, with his first self-titled album earning him massive critical acclaim in 2011.

And going back to listen to that album, I can definitely see why people like this guy. James Blake never lets his instrumentation get out of hand, and his gift for atmospherics is extremely impressive. There's a real hollow and spatial feel to his music that's a deft counterweight to the emotion in his voice, which is only enhanced by the heavy autotune, which works to create a real feel of distance and loneliness permeating each track. And combined with James Blake's mournful baritenor, the album treads the thin line between overwrought and underdeveloped. 

Do I have a few issues with that album? Well, of course - parts feel underwritten, leaving me wishing James Blake's surprisingly poignant lyricism would be taken further. And there are points where the vocal effects are a bit too thick, making the lyrics very difficult to parse out. But even still, I'm reminded a lot of Ben Gibbard making an album along the lines of Kanye West's 808s And Heartbreak, albeit without the massive bombast that occasionally cropped up on that album. But overall, for a debut, it's incredibly strong and loaded with potential, and I was definitely interested to check out his sophomore effort.

And, completely unsurprisingly, James Blake's Overgrown is actually a pretty damn solid album, with plenty of beautiful songs that easily launch it into the pantheon of the better albums I've heard so far this year. All of his strengths are on display here, from the thick atmospheric production to his soulful, mournful delivery that manages to tug at the heartstrings. I've got to be honest, like most music critics I've got a certain conditioning against material designed to manipulate emotions, but James Blake steps up to the microphone with seemingly real vulnerability that actually does make him compelling. 

It also helps things that the autotune has been peeled back significantly on this album, thus allowing a closer connection to the singer - in fact, all of the vocal affects have been scaled back, and when they do come in, they feel a bit out of place against the rawer production, as do the few moments when more complex or louder dubstep segments come into the mix. Ultimately, it means that Overgrown doesn't quite flow as well as its predecessor, but I'm willing to give the album a bit of a pass in that regard because folk tends to be a little rougher on the edges. And even with that, the dubstep segments do manage to work halfway decently, particularly on tracks like 'Digital Lion', mostly when they're kept under tighter control (in comparison to 'Voyeur', where the backbeat overwhelms to the song somewhat to its detriment).

However, what I did find disappointing was the scaling back of some of the R&B elements, particularly the multi-part choral segments that made songs like 'Measurements' so unique and engaging on Blake's first album. I can't help but feel there was a missed opportunity here, not only because more intricate choral arrangements can work very well in a folk setting, but while the choice to rely more on a 'singular' voice might serve to make the album more 'personal', it also stripped away some of the power and energy this album desperately needs. The sole guest spot on this album belongs to acclaimed rapper RZA on 'Take A Fall For Me', but his flow is so bland and monotone that it adds nothing to the general aesthetic of the song. 

But like always, we have to come back to the lyrics, one of my persistent problems with James Blake. Keep in mind that I don't think that he's exactly bad in this element - he has a marked simplicity that lends his tracks poignancy as I stated above, but I find myself looking for more personality in the metaphors and imagery that he uses. The opening title track is definitely a step in the right direction for Blake, but I can't help but feel a certain lack of personality and colour to the lyrics that finds me wanting more. And sure, it might be unfair to make this comparison, but when I place Overgrown opposite Nick Cave's Push The Sky Away, an understated album that is nevertheless overflowing with intricate and intriguing lyrics laced with symbols that all manage to tie together into a coherent album statement, James Blake just seems entirely too moderate.

Granted, this fits James Blake's persona to a tee, but I think that's ultimately one of my problems with him as a performer, in that he's very much a moderate in everything that he puts forward, tightly controlling everything to the point where any 'extreme' seems incredibly calculated. It's a testament to how good his delivery and production is that it's difficult to notice just how small so much of his material can feel in a tighter focus, and I could imagine that if he wasn't as emotive of a performer or his atmospherics weren't as good, he'd be well in line to joining Jack Johnson as one of the most boring performers making music today. 

Now according to Blake, Overgrown is an album about 'extremes', but when I look at the relationships his material explores, the language used is much more moderate and contained and doesn't suggest extreme emotion in the slightest. I can see instability and fractures in the relationships he describes, but like with Tegan & Sara, it feels small, and while he might be in great pain, his empty atmospheric production tend to make him feel distant, blunting empathy. Here's an area where choral arrangements could have definitely enhanced the atmosphere and elevated his relatively benign lyrics into something potent and powerful, but instead I'm left distinctly unsatisfied.

This review is frustrating, because it's really comes across as more negative than it should be. As it is, James Blake's Overgrown is a great album with a ton of excellently composed, beautifully atmospheric tracks. It maintains a great emotional balance in vocal delivery, the lyrics are simple and have real moments of potency, and the entire album is so excellently produced that it actually manages to gain some dramatic heft. And for a sophomore act, this is precisely the right step Blake should have taken, pulling away the barriers and exposing more texture and nuance to his music instead of keeping us at a distance. But I can't help but feel there are a few ways Blake could have given his album more personality and weight to really move me. Between the occasional mix slip-up (a few times Blake's electronics get away from him), his curious lack of choral backing, and the poignant yet oddly expressionless lyrics, something isn't quite clicking for me with James Blake, and it holds Overgrown back from being something truly special. However, I will recommend Overgrown, particularly if you're a fan of minimalist, atmospheric R&B and dubstep, because you're certainly not going to hear anything like it this year. 

And hell, if we get more dubstep in this vein and similar to what Muse and Imagine Dragons are doing, I might actually start to like this genre after all.

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