October 12, 2011

Test Spins: James Blake, Enough Thunder

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In an interview with Pitchfork last month, James Blake derided dubstep producers in their exploitation of “a sort of frat-boy market where there’s this macho-ism being reflected in the sounds and the way the music makes you feel.” From an artist who helped foster the stateside invasion of dubstep with his three 2010 EPs — The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke — the comment seems out of place; the prodigal pianist-producer lambasting the dubstep “pissing contest.” Yet it’s true — Blake’s evolved past the wubs and wobbles into electronic post-dubstep on his fourth EP, Enough Thunder. Released on October 10, 2011, Enough Thunder is undoubtedly the most low-fi of all Blake’s work thus far — and therefore also the most unrecognizable.

But Blake — now stripped of his beloved quivering bass — sounds sparse. Without any of his signature sonic accoutrements, there is a stiffness, a recital-like quality to his performance. Most notably, the album’s title track, “Enough Thunder,” is an original piano-and-voice composition. The usual vocal distortions are conspicuous in their absence, but nonetheless he retains the original emotionality in his EP’s core melancholia. Also familiar is his extensive use of silence, an eerie tension-mounting alternative to the expected release of a pounding baseline. The silence, often placed in the middle of the song, is spatial and purposely hesitant, edging along lyrics, announcing the arrival of James Blake the minimalist.

Despite Blake’s association with singer-songwriters, a population that usually produces intimate work, Enough Thunder has an unshakeable glacial quality. There lies an immutable distance between lyrical content and sonic quality. Perhaps this is due to the lyrics themselves, which, while simple, are nearly impossible to decipher. And while Blake was never expected to produce a catchy sing-a-long CD, weary listeners may long for actual lyrics while lost in Enough Thunder’s sea of synth pulses, vinyl fuzz, and skittering snares. Of course, unintelligible lyrics and emotional distance are also the modus operandi of another well-respected artist, Justin Vernon, frontman of Bon Iver. The collaboration between Vernon and Blake on “Fall Creek Boys Choir” seems like a natural fit — almost too natural, in fact, due to the duo’s stylistic redundancies. While “Fall Creek Boys Choir” may be one of the better songs on the album, that’s not necessarily saying much. Layering autotuned croons on top of dolphin-like barks, the track could just about pass for a Bon Iver b-side.

However, the most disappointing factor of all may be Blake’s dry voice. While his warble worked wonders in his hit Feist cover, “Limit To Your Love,” it sounded both strangled and lonely in his Joni Mitchell cover, “A Case of You.” “A Case of You” is improved by Blake’s brooding feel, but the simple ballad seems bare. Switching Mitchell’s guitar for a piano, there is something about the end product that is not greater than the sum of its parts. Fortunately, from all six tracks, there is at least some solace to be found in the EP’s penultimate offering, “Not Long Now.” Finally, a remnant of James’s dubstep days is found. After all the tension of silence and the nearly unbearable soulfulness of Vernon’s falsetto, a beat drops. Yes, almost twenty minutes into the EP, and the synth swells into an actual beat, providing more release in the last twenty seconds than the album produced in its entirety.

And while Enough Thunder certainly seemed more like Not Enough Thunder, Blake’s singer-songwriter piano ballads are necessary exploration for a young, compelling musician. Enough Thunder is not comparable to his massively successful 2011 self-titled LP, but fans of James Blake will find enjoyment in his ever-changing sound — dubstep, post-dubstep, or otherwise.

Original Author: Alice Wang