Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
Music Review: James Blake - robotic, but strangely warm and fuzzy
Listening to James Blake can feel like being underwater; his waves of electronica swell and retreat, building up and breaking over you, drowning with a thick, wobbling bass and looping, lapping vocals.
Forgive the drawn out imagery; there's something about his music that is rather heady and hypnotic.
And yet the young Londoner also has a certain fragility: when his debut came out in 2011, it was the marriage of rib-rattling dub-step with those sweet but ghostly vocals that really struck a chord with listeners. Well, that and his literal minor chord melancholic pounding on the piano.
His music was complex and subtle - a quality it retains on his second record, Overgrown, and live, played with two band members. It often seems to pause and tremble on the edge of something, to skitter in unexpected directions, rhythms or melodies tilting off centre.
Not that it's just gloomy or cerebral: many tracks give your temples a good pounding, with thunderous beats and drilling sub-bass. There's a definite risk of zoning out, but tracks like "Life Round Here" and "Retrograde" gear up into an R&B groove that the crowd craves, Blake himself shimmying over his keys.
But the most impressive moments have a more tender quality.
A slight, sweet-natured presence, Blake is also a dreadful mutterer; it's almost impossible to decipher his between-song chat - not least because everyone turns to each other and bellows, "I can't understand a word he's saying" - but he sounds polite.
Yet out from under a thick swooshy shock of hair (a Bieber for the discerning twenty-something hipster, perhaps?) comes this incredible voice: it has both fragility and power, hitting high notes or tumbling down the scale as he sings of "falling, falling, falling" on "The Wilhelm Scream". It's lovely when unadorned – as on a cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You", which Blake stamps his identity on not through smothering sub-bass but with his delivery: fluttering over phrases, then stretching out vowels. He doesn’t sound like Joni, but he does suddenly sound oddly feminine.
Blake also knows how to use voice modulation to the best effect; the vocodered "Lindisfarne" may sound robotic but it's also strangely warm and fuzzy here, while "Measurements" makes for a stunning closing number: after gently silencing the crowd, he loops his vocals until he's harmonising with himself. It has a slow, stately grandeur, achieving a gospel, hymn-like quality in the hush.
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