May 14, 2010

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21 year old London producer James Blake hasn’t been lacking for congratulatory press, what with his every single since “The Air & Lack Thereof” being hailed as a milestone in the field of DPEDMFL (Dubstep proper electronic dance music fans like). Indeed, only fellow rookie Joy Orbison ended up with more props last year – if Boomkat cosigns were groupies, these two would be Ghost & U-God in the “Cherchez la” video. To be fair, the hype isn’t unwarranted: though undoubtedly the kind of unorthodox (read: weird) soundscapes that gets critics foaming at the mouth; Blakes’ intricately crafted releases exude a warmth and humanity that’s easy to latch onto even if most of his lurching stop-start rhythms are better suited for DMT trips than dancing.

Though building on elements as varied as smoked-out psychedelia, ghostly vocals ripped from 90’s pop, G-funk synth lines and Dubstep bass drops, the core of Blake’s music isn’t the most eye-catching elements but rather the slinky, jittery details hovering in the background. First the keys: though supposedly classically trained, Blake avoids flowery arpeggios in favor of a woozy, seasick, detuned mess of an approach recalling drunken ghosts playing broken organs under water. He’s not the only one attempting this mind; Girl Unit and Bok Bok have both scored hits off nauseating synth leads but what separates Blake from the pack is how dirty and spectral his shit sounds. In a genre placing a premium on clarity, James Blake recognizes that dirt don’t hurt: an approach recalling the blunted, dusted California Low-End music that’s rising as a friendly competitor to the sounds of London.

In addition to off-sounding riffs, this fascination for texture exerts itself in his songs’ mixes which include all sorts of grimy static, sudden sonic shifts and seemingly leftover bits of audio dangling at the edges. Like Flying Lotus’ recent Cosmogramma, Blake’s singles undermine the clinical cleanliness and “in the box” sound of contemporary electronic music injecting a much needed, if off-putting dose of electro-acoustic space into the equation. The result feels real but at the same time impossible: a recording merging the qualities of acoustic space with the surgical precision of a midi-matrixed grid. Combine this with the aforementioned drunken organ and a sense of rhythm that’s half lumbering ogre and half constantly shifting bone machine and you’ve got a piece of music that’s seemingly fighting it out with itself, never truly coalescing into a final form. These chimerical zombies are by no means seamless: you can see patches and stitches all over the place which is at once thrilling, more than a little disconcerting and ultimately rewarding. When’s the last time a producer made you go “What the FUCK?”

For better or for worse, Blake’s newest release CMYK eliminates that last part, coming dangerously close to proper electronic music through its chopped up vocal line and mostly consistent beat. Forming around a spectral R&B vocal chop straight out of the Burial playbook before exploding into a flurry of upbeat drums and chipmunked vocals, it’s experimental music for a generation raised on TRL (or the nearest British equivalent). It’s also the closest he’s come to a banger so far, even if the vibe is closer to an early morning post-rave sunrise than an amphetamine fueled 3AM wobbler. In any case, DJs brave enough to drop this into their sets will be well rewarded: underneath the dusty samples lies enough sub bass to kill a donkey (which is a lot of sub bass, in case you didn’t know) and though it may scare off a couple of bros’, it’ll make up for it in arty Germans who’ve probably heard it 100 times at Berghain. Though he probably won’t be stealing any of Rusko’s production checks any time soon and I’m at a loss as to how one dances to his stuff, James Blake is onto something here: it’ll probably take a minute to figure out what that “something” is though.

Download: (Via Electronic Explorations)

MP3: James Blake – Electronic Explorations Mix