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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    James Blake still appeals to his set on ‘Overgrown’

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    The most striking thing about James Blake has always been the way he tries to negotiate two very separate worlds in his recording output.

    First and foremost, there is James Blake the producer, the British dubstep prodigy who has made a second career out of criticizing American dubstep artists for being more concerned with having the dirtiest drop than egalitarian emotionalism.

    Blake’s second musical love, the beautiful and often histrionic vocal stylings of R&B, makes far more sense when understood in the context of how Blake sees dubstep and EDM. One of the better tracks on Overgrown, “Life Round Here,” finds Blake crooning, “Now we’re at square one / And we waited too long” as the music drops and raves, while weeping organs keep the song tethered to the less celebratory side of EDM. It’s a great track on a very good album, even if it tends toward the same sound Blake has been producing for a couple years now.

    There are points on every Blake release where the sound begins to overtake the actual songwriting and Blake’s production and vocal gymnastics hew more closely to the atmospheric side of things than the melodic.

    Several songs on the album have great hooks, though, like the sampled vocal meandering “Speculate what we feel” from “I Am Sold” or the bluesy falsetto of lead single “Retrograde” that sounds like something Thom Yorke might have listened to in preparation for Radiohead’s recent The King of Limbs.

    Blake’s also taking more chances on Overgrown than he has in the past, whether in the form of a bare-bones piano ballad like “DLM” or the head-scratching “Take a Fall For Me,” in which Wu-Tang Clan headmaster RZA is given an entire track to rap with minimal assistance from Blake. RZA’s cameo is certainly not bad, but it does feel out of place in the intimate atmosphere of a Blake record.

    Overgrown’s other cameo fares far better on album highlight “Digital Lion,” produced by ambient producer extraordinaire Brian Eno. Eno has a tendency to let sounds ring and hold out a bit more than Blake does, and when placed side by side with Blake’s production work on this album, Eno’s ambient synthesizers and conscious use of white noise on “Digital Lion” certainly stand out. The song’s final minute combines Eno’s soundscape with Blake’s urgent manipulation to incredible effect, letting “Digital Lion” stand as the greatest achievement of the album.

    That is, of course, if it’s not outmatched by the following track, “Voyeur.” Sampling his own voice singing, “My mind was only” over and over, “Voyeur” is the moment when Blake escalates his minimalist R&B into an all-out techno song, synthesizers and whistles consuming his voice for three and a half minutes.

    Then, as if to top himself, Blake cuts out the sample mid-song and tosses on a radically uncharacteristic yet jaw-dropping coda before ending the song less than a minute later.

    Overgrown treads much of the same ground as Blake’s breakthrough album, 2011’s James Blake, but it still provides a good argument for considering Blake as one of the most relevant singer/producers working today.

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