James Blake – (‘The Wilhelm Scream’ Is A Cover Too)
James Blake – James Blake
The opening sound of Deerhunter’s Halycon Digest is a reversed crashing hand-clap sample which loops beside an estranged Roland hit-hat. It is a poignant and unexpected opening for a band totally dissociated with the connotations these sounds yield. James Blake is a bedroom producer of careful electronica, whose name gets chucked around with loose classifiers like ‘post-dubstep’ and ‘ambient’. His debut commences with a similar combination of explosive loop placed uncoordinated in the sparse matrix with a few other choice samples. The result is a sombre album opener that is actually rather anticlimactic, but what’s more is the album merrily carries on in this strangely predictable vein.
From the minute Blake’s voice becomes audible, Anthony and the Johnsons spring to mind. And then my brother quips “is this Bon Iver?”, since the use of auto-tune is privy to this fair assumption. More than one track sounds pretty much like “Woods”, but whilst Justin Vernon is cleverly sparse with his vocoder reliance, as the album advances Blake absolutely rinses the trick. He has a striking voice, but it’s hard to not conclude that all the obsessive disguising is an attempt to mask vocal insecurities. I actually find myself favouring Blake much more when he isn’t drenched in that risky vocoder and auto-tune combination, usually being taken beyond the realms of acceptable.
Initially I pondered at how tracks like “I Never Learnt To Share” are allowed to exist. I thought that other than a terrible rhythmic mess that only really finds its feet in the final minute, when a nice pulsating oscillator crescendos, it is by now that highly annoying keyboard that Blake insists on employing to induce messy poly-rhythmic headaches on the listener. In other places, sometimes this is the case. HOWEVER, the mind also boggles at how the entire thing can just grow on you. The contrast of the uplifting hymnal plagal chord change you can also hear dominating Bon Iver’s “Re-stacks”, before swelling to an oscillator frenzy is utterly infectious. The swell is the electronic equivalent of “A Day In The Life”, and easily my favourite song on the album.
The most creative beats arrive far later on in the album, a rhythmic progression that strips the opening tracks of their title of most significant in retaining listener interest. I thought Blake was purely keyboard, but “Lindisfarne II” showcases a bloody acoustic guitar! Hidden beneath distortion of course, so you might miss it. He seems to enjoy setting up circumstances that allow presumptions, and then whacking those balls of presumption clean out of the park with simple but effective changes. “Give Me My Month” is a real stand-out because it is just a nice ballad on a pub-piano, it could almost be a Tom Waits cover.
Like a revealing mirror in a well-lit room, “Limit To Your Love” and “The Wilhelm Scream” are the most handsome features throughout a sometimes unappealing complexion, accurately depicting all of Blake’s genuine talents in their best light: production, minimalist-arrangements and singing. It is perfectly clear Blake isn’t really a songwriter in the traditional sense of the word.
Although the lyrics may seem a tad repressive in their repetition, we must remember Blake is a producer at heart and therefore a sound arranger. Until now he has taken vocal samples, and manipulated them in all the ways his popular-music graduate mind will let him. He doesn’t have to change his sound palette every time each piece progresses, so why should he change the words every time too? It’s part of his style, at it works.
Lyrical phrases are often over repeated and over subscribed with ridiculous melisma in the style of Christina Aguilera, as if Blake is determined to convince the listener that his soulful tendencies are honestly there underneath the vocoded mask. Every time he stops crying “Look! I’m a soul-singer!” the after-effect is rather refreshing but like I suggested earlier, perhaps this technique of contrast is the aim.
Edit February 10th; “The Wilhelm Scream” is a cover! James Litherland is James Blake’s dad. Listen to the original “Where To Turn” here: Sounds a bit like old Phil Collins…
Edit March 2nd: By popular demand, here are the chords to “The Wilhelm Scream”
I don’t know about my dreams
………………………………. Cmaj7 …………… G
I don’t know about my dreaming anymore
All that I know is
I’m falling, falling, falling, falling
-James Godwin, February 7th, 2011
Copyright © 2011. James Godwin. All rights reserved.