Album Review | James Blake

James Blake
Atlas/A and M Records

chill•out \ chil-aût \ vb + dub \ dub \ n

Originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine | 02.02.11

After enough listens to his self-titled debut, I’ve officially come to view 21-year-old British bass music innovator James Blake as the frontman for a band of tiny robots. I also suspect that said robots have a serious ganja habit. His music is so spare and dubby that, at times, the beats sound as if they’re being tapped out with matchsticks on a two-inch-tall snare drum in an echo chamber (and that’s if they have any beat at all). But don’t let a silly metaphor about a miniature mechanical ensemble cheapen Blake’s sound.

Ultra-minimal R&B, the album is full of stripped down techy and chill out productions that could have come from an alternate universe where Chess and Stax Records are as relevant as ever. Songs like “The Wilhelm Scream” deserve comparison to electronic soul crooner Jamie Lidell, and the haunting “To Care (Like You)” is of the same mold as emerging U.K. talents Mount Kimbie or Darkstar. And as is the case with these other British acts, dubstep is just a point of reference—and a poor one at that.

James Blake is composing a new gospel, a direct descendant of the spiritual hymns and blues lamentations of early black American folk music. “I Never Learnt to Share” exudes a traditional call-and-response, backed by a distorted keyboardist painting with the improvisational brushstrokes of an abstract impressionist. The airy jazz of Blake’s rerub of Leslie Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” is a perfect vehicle for his overcast style. His update is so deep and wobbly I picture it bringing tears of joy to the eyes of prolific riddim duo Sly and Robbie.

Economical electronic blues with the bare minimum of moving parts, Blake’s music is a reflection of the times: longing, melancholy, close to home and intensely beautiful.

—Joshua P. Ferguson



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