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Album Review: James Blake- Overgrown

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James Blake Overgrown

James Blake returns with an impressive second album that is as varied as it is cohesive.

Grime MC and previous collaborator Trim succinctly summed it up when he said Blake makes “weird music.” Although categorised as dance on iTunes, 80% of his material, particularly 2011’s self-titled debut album, would sooner clear out a dancefloor than fill it.

For an artist that started making music as result of hearing dubstep in a club for the first time this may seem strange, yet the Aaliyah and Kelis sampling ‘CMYK’ (which was my first encounter with his work) clearly points to this influence.

This idiosyncratic take on early dubstep rife with soul influences from the likes of D’Angelo led to his music being labelled as post-dubstep alongside that of good friends Mount Kimbie and former housemate Ifan Dafydd. However ‘Limit to Your Love’ saw the beginning of Blake delving into soul singer/songwriter territory, incorporating his classical background. His debut followed in this vein which for some was surprising as it was disappointing. Even Blake himself has expressed his dissatisfaction with the album feeling that it was disjointed and lacking focus. Though it still received a Mercury music prize nomination and propelled Blake into the spotlight.

As well as making the new album, the last two years have included extensive touring, being invited to Kanye West’s house and finally releasing the collaboration with Trim under his experimental hip-hop and RnB orientated Harmonimix moniker.

Overgrown sees Blake effectively juggling his singer/songwriter and producer personas, demonstrating the potential that was hinted at in his debut.

However with five out of 11 tracks being shared prior the album’s release, Overgrown feels anti-climatic as these also happen to be strongest. On more dance orientated track ‘Voyeur,’ which was released on Blake’s new label 1-800-Dinosaur, looping vocals mesh perfectly with deep synths and a piano line.

The explicitly hip-hop influenced ‘Life Round Here’ is definitely one of the album’s highlights. On a whole the album is wrought with emotion however on vocally weaker tracks like ‘To The Last’ where Blake sounds whiney it becomes too soppy. Lead single ‘Retrograde’ successfully manages high emotions without being sentimental as his more powerful vocals take centre stage. It also showcases his capability of making more accessible tracks and still retaining all his quirks.

The album’s collaborations are particular high points only serving to enhance it rather than detract. Brian Eno’s remarkable contribution to ‘Digital Lion’ makes the track mesmerising with Blake’s hum of a vocal. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA appearance on the melancholic ‘Take A Fall For Me’ is more of track that features James Blake rather than the other way around. Although this partnership may seem strange on paper, it works to great effect.

The Big Boi sampling bonus track ‘Every Day I Ran,’ is a personal stand out.  Although it doesn’t necessarily fit with tone of the album, understandably making it an extra addition, we see Blake at his best as a producer. The chopped up sample intertwines with Blake’s own vocals on top of synth driven Hip-Hop beat which could easily make it a product of his Harmonimix alias.

Overgrown has greater consistency than its predecessor. Each of the tracks are fitting to the overall tone even if individually they fall short. However they cannot be faulted for their complexity and attempt to incorporate a variety of influences. They are evident strains of gospel which were only briefly seen in Blake’s debut. The album caters to both earlier and later fans with something for everyone.

It is clear that Blake is more comfortable as an artist in both as a producer and singer/songwriter, putting to bed the difficult second album problem. 

 




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