Music

James Blake: Overgrown

The London wunderkind returns with an album that attempts to satisfy fans nostalgic for his early post-dubstep tinkerings and the new legion of listeners who know him as one of the decade's most promising singer-songwriters.


James Blake

Overgrown

Label: Polydor / Republic Records
US Release Date: 2013-04-09
UK Release Date: 2013-04-10
Amazon
iTunes

Listeners wondering how London’s James Blake moved from the subtly boundary-pushing dubstep of his first three EPs to the comparably straightforward, R&B-laden singer-songwriter material of 2011’s James Blake, his wildly acclaimed debut LP (and the sold-out international tours that followed), should look to a single song for their answer. Performed for a BBC Radio 1 session to coincide with his album’s release, Blake’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” shows the then-21-year-old’s hand -- or hands, really, as his flourishes on the solo piano venture sound out his virtuoso talents on the keys. In what would become the signature move of his self-titled collection of songs, Blake fills the track with an almost equal amount of silence from his piano, letting notes ring and fade out into silence, as if the instrument were tossing and turning in halfsleep for the three-minute take. Married to Blake’s vocals, a perfect blend of concert-hall-ready pitch and gripping emotional cracks, the cover performs a rare miracle of the form: it both becomes his own song while also staying true to the fundamental spirit of Mitchell’s original classic.

When you realize you can do such a thing, with a keyboard and your voice, there’s only one thing to do next: you do it again, over and over.

Many of Blake’s early fans, those who listened to tracks like “CMYK” and “Klavierwerke” on headphones and in dark East London clubs, must have felt a bit betrayed by the full-length record that followed. Commercial in a way none of those initial releases even began to predict, James Blake reinvented its songwriter as a balladeer for the 21st century, someone taking the basic formula at the heart of the music made by progenitors like Joni Mitchell -- emotive, confessional songs built around instrument-and-voice in structures that at their best were simple without being predictable -- and updating it with futuristic electronic flourishes and enough subtle textural notes to fill a carpet warehouse.

Blake’s follow-up, Overgrown, has good news for those fans, at least on its surface. On the first few spins, Overgrown seems almost bereft of even the restrained hooks and more pop-oriented elements of James Blake. The B-side run of “Digital Lion” through “Our Love Comes Back” brings Blake’s love for ebb-and-flow dynamics and headphone-fetishist sonic tinkering to his album work in a more full-blooded way than anything on James Blake, showing the singer’s new willingness to push territory previously reserved for his EPs (and their more limited audience) onto his wide releases. And it’s the better half of the record. “Digital Lion", conspicuously co-produced with Brian Eno, slowly adds layer upon layer of percussion and vocal loops to the song until we’re lift with a wondrous concoction, something like a multi-tiered mammoth proudly resting in the display case of a posh bakery. “Voyeur” moves from Blake’s now-familiar vocal manipulation into a proper 4/4 banger, which would be club-ready if not for the (comforting) haze of keyboard drone Blake tosses on top of the mix.

In a strange mistake of sequencing, Blake frontloads Overgrown with its least interesting material. The title track and opening cut is strong enough, a logical conclusion of the self-titled record’s path, Blake’s confessional lyrics -- “I don’t want to be a star / but a stone on the shore” -- given front-and-center placement atop a hypnotic, slowly evolving beat. But “I Am Sold” and “Life Round Here” seem more like retreads of that early material, exercises in pitch-shifting and Quiet Storm mood. Still, these songs are incalculably superior to the album’s one true low-point, the RZA showpiece “Take a Fall for Me", a laughably awkward mismatch that seems like a collaboration the producers of the Grammys would work up after a night drinking whatever signature booze Diddy’s selling this month. It’s easily the worst thing Blake’s ever done, and it’s tough to wash the taste out of your mouth for the remainder of the record.

Whatever Overgrown’s disappointments, it still bears the mark of a young songwriter of obscene talent. Think of all the different shapes he’s taken in just the three (!) years he’s been releasing music under his own name. The record feels like the work of an artist already restless at 23. That’s a good thing for us. James Blake doesn’t seem the type to look backward or to stay still for very long.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image