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Album Review: James Blake - Overgrown

Blake's back with an album that fights through overwhelming expectation to produce a sonic experience with some truly special moments. Rory Foster reviews.

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Release: 8th April
Label: Republic Records

Overgrown-art-2.2013

When I reviewed James Blake live a year and a half ago I gave it 2 stars and said this: "James Blake's persona is part bass DJ, part singer-songwriter. He's trying to please both, but he'd be much better off picking one direction". Trust James to ignore my advice: Overgrown is yet another fascinating release from the 20-something Londoner that refuses to pick a genre-defined direction and is slashing through the undergrowth into places we haven't really heard before. Whether or not this has lead to a better album, I'm not so sure about.

Part of the reason Blake gets away with this is that he never really settled on a style when first releasing music 4 years ago. If you were introduced to Blake through debut LP tracks 'The Wilhelm Scream' or 'Lindesfarne', you'd be surprised to look back at his discography and find Blake responsible for one of the most critically acclaimed electronic tracks of 2010, 'CMYK'. Released on R&S records, a label known for making more money selling T-shirts with their logos on than actual records, this song along with Joy Orbison's 'Hyph Mngo' and Mount Kimbie's 'Maybes' was at least partly responsible for bringing the UK's emerging dubstep/post-dubstep/bass/ scene into the public sphere. Needless to say when Blake came out with a cover of Feist's 'Limit to Your Love', it was pretty surprising for all of us.

Now before you start sweating, don't worry; there's still nothing as bad as the song he did with Justin Vernon on this record. If you liked 'Give me my Month', or 'Why Don't You Call Me' off of the last album, there are chunks of this album you will love. 'DLM' in particular is beautiful in the same way that any of Blake's naked piano tracks have been up to this point. Blake has an incredible voice, and no amount of vocoder can hide that, as much as he does try at times. If however you're in the market for another 'Lindesfarne', or 'A Case of You', you may find yourself struggling past 'Retrograde'.

Approaching with an open mind will lead to reward. Openers 'Overgrown' and 'I am Sold' are both excellent displays of Blake's haunting vocal style before he ventures off into the deeper electronic side of things. But the first stand-out moment of the album is without a doubt the third track. 'Life Round Here' sounds like a gothic Destiny's child, and is simply fabulous. Irresistibly walking the line between the club and the bedroom, this is Blake at his finest.

Blake's always had some RnB blood in him (his harmonimix side-project remixed 'Bills Bills Bills' and CMYK samples Aaliyah and Kelis) and this track leaves me wanting more of the same. Yet it isn't to be, instead, we are greeted by The Wu-Tang Clan's RZA for 'Take a Fall for Me'. Providing a murky verse with some special Britain-referencing lyrics ("fish and chips with vinegar/With a glass of cold stout or wine or something similar" - I shit you not), it switches up an album which until that point had mostly been one man and his piano, and so is quite refreshing if only for the change. Blake's production is sublime, it just seems a rather bizarre thing to fit in around the rest of the record.

The rest of the album comes a little patchy. 'Digital Lion' hands production credits over to Brian Eno, but only seems special for having (as far as I can tell) the only bit of acoustic guitar on the whole album. That and its rather Thom Yorke-esque breakdown at the end is not enough to convince me it's a good song. Likewise 'To the Last' is a rather lacklustre track that treads water before the closing electronic ballad of 'Our Love Comes Back', which is not by any means a bad ending but leaves a slight lack of completeness to what's only been a 40-minute album.

It has its flaws, but as a whole Overgrown is a sonic experience that has some truly special moments. Despite pressures to do otherwise, Blake has emerged with a record that is less commercial than his debut, and perhaps a little less consistent, but no less impressive. Whilst I still feel Blake is best when he gives himself and the piano a bit of space from his electronic leanings as he did with the Enough Thunder / Love What Hapenned Here EPs 2 years ago, it's hard to deny that Blake is pushing his sound, and electronic music as a whole, forward.

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