January 19, 2011

James Blake Serves an Ace

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Educational unrest in London has sent waves through the city’s system of higher learning, sparking demonstrations that have clogged town halls and civic buildings – students even attacked Prince Charles’ car, and he’s a PRINCE. Reacting to proposed tuition hikes, protesters have taken to the streets of England to face down governmental extortion in the form of riot-geared police. The rebellion is taking all forms as thousands of bodies defiantly crowd streets in protest of the proposed inflation. In July 2009, James Blake began his final year at Goldsmith’s, the London University that watched him emerge as one of the most progressive voices of this raw decade, providing a soundtrack — however unintentionally — to the tumultuous state of his native generation.

Blake’s self-titled debut album is due in February after a number of singles that have drawn widespread acclaim, most notably a cover of Feist’s “A Limit To Your Love.” Blake’s music is the culmination of our generation’s electronic obsession, a collection of sound collages that simultaneously defy and embrace conventional song structure, using stable rhythms as a factor rather than a foundation. The pulsing synths and naked atonalities that pattern Blake’s album are paired with stunning harmonies and progressions that appear from nowhere, creating a hypnotic variety of songs that skip and jump to pockets of distorted white noise.

Drawing on grids laid by Bon Iver and Joni Mitchell, Blake finds the innovative moments in those approaches to unfurnished music and runs them through a contemporary lens. The present state of music is one of electric bumps and swells, plastic compositions that have found new life in mechanical sound. The technological possibility uncovered in today’s popular music far outstrips its musical worth. While we won’t necessarily remember Ke$ha as musical pioneer, she became famous thanks to how easily songs can be electronically written. Blake makes most of his music from a piano and a voice, yet he is able to create an album that provides us with uncharted territory, music that asks us to question our own expectations of an established convention. “Wilhelm’s Scream” and “Why Don’t You Call Me” embody Blake’s ability to blend a hip-hop foundation with haphazard sound bites, somehow creating a melting pot of keys and grating beauty that comes out with a style all its own.

Electronic music has been shown a number of different faces, each attached to a different genre. Yet with time comes progress, and rather than be reduced to a specific sect of music, this present incarnation has touched every corner of pop. Kanye’s collaborations with Bon Iver stand as a testament of the walls being destroyed, a combination of contrasting musical styles that pushes the boundaries of their respective styles. In some ways, Blake’s album could be described as what would have happened if that collaboration had been reversed. His songs are full of catchy hooks and head-nodding — there are samples-a-plenty for any prospective beatmaker.

Rather than whittle his music down to a shiny, polished product, Blake’s album plays like sandpaper, forcing us to accept the rough presentation in order to appreciate the rewards that come with our patience. The protests in London, like Blake’s album, are an example of how easily these revolutions can be recognized and acknowledged. Social media’s instantaneous and international dispersion of these respective rebellions against convention is changing perspectives regardless of whether their motives are musical or economic.

Original Author: Graham Corrigan