The singer-songwriter has had a circuitous route to his current position as one of the most singular artists who’s turning soul and R&B inside out with impossibly inventive electronic production.
Since emerging in 2009 at the tail-end of dubstep, he managed to transcend the ‘post-dubstep’ tag given to Mount Kimbie, Zomby and Joy Orbison.
On earlier 12-inches such as Air and Lack Thereof and CMYK, Blake contorted and folded his vocal tics into even more convoluted corners than Burial, and utilised sub-bass with military precision.
The turning point – at least commercially – was his cover of Feist’s Limit To Your Love. The song is nominally a piano ballad that even sneaked into the UK top 40, but beneath the deft keys and Blake’s wounded falsetto lies a cavernous gut-punch bass that sets his stall out as a devastating sound designer as well as an artist twisting soul music in many shapes.
These contrasts turn Blake live shows into a series of double-takes, as you’re drawn into an emotionally charged passage with subtle electronic glitches and tics, before bass tremors burrow up from the floor and root you to the spot.
After his first run of EPs, Blake shook off the vocal smoke & mirrors to push his voice and the piano into the open, even if he smudged and obscured his face on the cover of his 2011 debut album.
His 2013 Mercury-winning album Overgrown plays off a similar template to his debut – impressionistic melancholy future-soul with glinting synths, 808 handclap residues and even a few verses from Wu-Tang CEO RZA. Blake also dug deeper into the rap well on Timeless, his recent collaboration with the always on-point Vince Staples.
Still on a hip-hop vibe, the softly-spoken Blake surely had the most polite Twitter beef in history this year, when he and Chance the Rapper had a slight squabble over a story Chance had been spreading about them getting a “Crib” in LA, with James saying it was “creepy”. Still, we’ve still got that version of Life Round Here with the Chance feature, even if the sitcom roomie capers didn’t pan out.
Blake’s collaborations this year are truly A-game, featuring on two of Beyonce’s Lemonade tracks, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde, while securing Ocean and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon for his latest album The Colour in Everything.
But unlike many producers flirting in hip-hop circles, James Blake isn’t all about the feature – he’s one of the decade’s most singular artists, quietly going about the business of changing the musical landscape.
ABRA, Sugar Club, Dublin, Friday 21st
Atlanta’s Awful Records has plenty of rap reprobates on its books, but Abra maybe a more PG persona than her antagonistic labelmates like Father and Richposlim or the druggy derangement of Slug Christ.
Calling herself the “Darkwave Duchess”, her take on skeletal R&B, woozy trap and detached robo-pop on her album Rose has just right amount of dread and tension.
NEVILLE STAPLE, Whelan’s, Dublin, Friday 21st
Apart from the big silly broad strokes of Madness, no other ska hero gets a bigger welcome than Neville Staple in Dublin, who’s back in Dublin for another night sharp-suited skanking.
Now out of The Specials after a health scare and a few regrets for regrouping without founder Jerry Dammers, he’ll be focusing on his latest album Ska Crazy while stilling throwing plenty of old treats – expect Ghost Town among ska standards such as Enjoy Yourself, Monkey Man and Simmer Down.
WINDINGS, Dolans, Limerick, Saturday 22nd
“I tried to throw a plastic bottle at the singer of The Frames,” rants Steven Ryan on Windings’ new album, earning a high five from anyone who’s allergic to worthy indie rock.
The Limerick act’s fourth LP Be Honest and Fear Not is a rare one indeed – an insanely catchy guitar album that has plenty of oblique nods to krautrock, psych-rock, droney noise and all that other good stuff that’s nothing like The Frames.
JINX LENNON, Whelan’s Upstairs, Dublin, Sunday23rd
With Sleaford Mods packing their gear up after their proto-punk ranting in Vicar St last night, remember Jinx Lennon has been at this caper since chief Mod Jason Williamson was still working at the dole office and moonlighting as an indie session guitarist.
Dundalk man Lennon uses a similar pallette of rudimentary 4/4 drum machine breaks and post-punk and garage riffs, while snarling about reality TV, mental health services, scraping by and whatever else you’ve got.
He’s got two new albums out this weekend — Magic Bullets Of Madness To Uplift The Grief Magnets and Past Pupil Stay Sane, and he’ll also be launching in Tower Records today at 1pm and Classified Records tomorrow in Dundalk at 1pm.
JOHN CARPENTER, Vicar Street, Dublin, Tuesday 25th
The Master of Horror was never going to grow old gracefully — and 68-year-old John Carpenter’s first ever music tour is a career retrospective that’s far from the after-dinner circuit.
Most of us have residual chills from Carpenter’s stark, dystopian thrillers, and Carpenter’s own electronic scores can’t be separated from images of Michael Myers’ blunt trauma attacks or the wispy terror of The Fog.
As a five-piece band including his son Cody, it’ll flit between the synth minimalism of Halloween and Assault From Precinct 13 to the rusty metallic blues of Escape From LA and his epic new albums Lost Themes I & II — with his iconic clips as a bonus.
- Originally published in Irish Star