Tuesday, June 1, 2010
James Blake - CMYK EP
03 I'll Stay
CMYK is only the third release from London electronic producer James Blake, who is only 21-- and the reason I keep saying "only" is because I get a little dumb thinking about how much ground he's covered in so few steps. His style is already recognizable: progressions of thick soul and jazz chords (a product of years of piano lessons), pitched-down and mangled vocals (often his own), and mid-tempo beats that balance synthesized sub-bass with handclaps, snaps, and other humanizing soundlets. But each of his releases-- last year's "Air & Lack Thereof" / "Sparing the Horses" single, February's The Bells Sketch EP, and now, CMYK EP-- also sounds like its own project, filled with private rules and concepts. He's writing his theme and his variations at the same time.
Blake isn't peerless, exactly. He's got collaborators and associates. (Untold and Mount Kimbie-- two artists he's done remixes for-- come to mind.) But Blake's peers are better known for the boundaries they're breaking down than the ones they're reinforcing, which is to say that Blake-- who appears to have a brain full of uncategorizable ideas-- is in a good position to do whatever tickles him. (The BBC DJ Gilles Peterson had him as a guest on his show last week, where he talked about his plans for a vocal-and-piano EP, and how he'd just had his mind pried open by seeing Joanna Newsom live. From any other contemporary electronic producer, I'd be surprised.)
CMYK is built from samples primarily from 90s R&B. Sometimes, they're incredibly obvious-- obvious like "I hope James Blake doesn't end up with legal fees" obvious. Other times, he crushes them beyond recognition. (We know from a Rising interview last month that Brandy is on there somewhere, and R. Kelly, too.)
The title track draws on both Kelis' "Caught Out There" and Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody"-- songs that helped define the years they came out in by sounding two steps ahead of everything around them. This is canny for plenty of reasons, I think, but I'll be brief: Blake takes two R&B archetypes-- the Spurned Woman and the Secret Lover-- and imagines them in a back and forth. It's modern homage to old ideas. But if you know the songs already, it's also an exercise in warming up your cultural memory-- both tracks are over 10 years old but under 15, a kind of dead zone for nostalgia, not yet retro-ready but no longer current. He's not reminding us of something we've forgotten or telling us about something we never knew about, he's reanimating songs that are probably just at the edge of peoples' thoughts. (It's also a statement of allegiances: though Blake-- as Harmonimix-- has worked with Lil' Wayne's voice, he doesn't seem to be as interested in current American hip-hop and R&B as much as he is in picking up where Timbaland and the Neptunes left off at the end of the 1990s.)
But what makes the track isn't its samples, its the way Blake integrates them. Everything on CMYK is remarkably balanced: throwback sounds (a soul singer) next to contemporary ones (filtered synthesizer sweeps); deeply processed sounds (a vocoder) next to clean ones; moments of dissonance and digital noise next to a consonant progression of organ chords. One minute it's naked, the next it's obscure. Blake's songs-- three- and four-minute long pieces of electronic pop-- have no real space or time. They're not dance tracks. They're deeply retro and slightly futuristic-- which is to say they're contemporary. They're made on a home computer, but sound like the work of an animatronic band.
I keep thinking of the Wong Kar-wai movie 2046, ostensibly a love story with parallel narratives, one set in the 1950s, one set in 2046. The superficial surroundings of the past are different from the future, but at one point, two characters say the same exact thing: "Leave with me." The context, though, is different, and changing the context changes the meaning. And when the meaning is changed, communication breaks down. In both cases, the characters are somehow misunderstood, and the misunderstanding leads to heartbreak. James Blake plays in these gaps-- these modern gaps-- in ways that are both clever and sympathetic. "Do androids dream of electric sheep?" is an old question. Blake's trying to figure out how convincingly they sing gospel...www.pitchfork.com