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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

James Blake: Overgrown (Release Date: 4-9-2013)

        I love James Blake, but there was a point when I wasn't even sure I liked him. The UK musical prodigy first saw his work zooming across the internet in 2010, releasing a trio of EPs that witnessed no shortage of adulation. His looping, sample-heavy compositions flew right in the face of the riotous sound attack of the dominant American Dub-step scene, inviting listeners to choose a side in a genre at war with itself. Blake's earlier work was easier for me to appreciate than enjoy, which is perhaps why his self-titled debut LP came as such a surprise. The then-22-year-old stepped out of the producer's chair and walked straight up to the mic, dolling out an down-trodden electro-croon atop minimal beats that re-contextualized the wobble bass forever more. Today marks the release of his sophomore full-length, Overgrown, a disc destined to be seen as a swivel-point in Blake's duplicitous career. Would the soulful club-jammer return to his swirling, swelling, dance club dub, or travel further down the path of space-age R&B, and singer-songwriter rhetoric? The answer, somewhat mystifyingly, is both: a lot of both.

        One of the things that made James Blake such a unique, enveloping experience was its thematic clarity, the entire disc existing in the very same sound-world, one track flowing seamlessly into the next. This couldn't be further from the truth on Overgrown, an LP with a tendency to throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks. The hushed, contemplative title track/opener isn't even cold by the time follow-up I Am Sold is getting ready to party, a precipitous beat growing steadily out of unapologetic piano ballad fare. The two songs, as well as the album at large, share that same dusty, nocturnal quality that often characterizes Blake's work, but that's about where the similarities end. It's exciting to see such a talented young artist continue to push into new directions, but the lack of cohesion can make Overgrown feel less like an album, and more like a collection of songs.

        Introspective James gets to shine on the aforementioned Overgrown, as well as comparatively stripped-down soul-bearer Dlm, and twin down-tempo closers To The Last and Our Love Comes Back.  Rug-cutting James takes a spin on I Am Sold and dense, movement-prompting early singles Digital Lion and Voyeur (both stand-out tracks). As if the battle for the guy's musical identity wasn't complicated enough, Blake manages to split the difference on Life Round Here, and even invites RZA to rap over the hazy march of Take a Fall For Me. This sudden insertion of hip-hop is a major curve-ball, and I expect many to have the same wait-am-I-still-listening-to-the-new-James-Blake? gut-reaction that I experienced. It's an easy concept to root for, but while Blake's beat is more than up to the challenge, RZA's lyrics are not. Not that the words themselves have to be the primary valuation of a hip-hop performance, but hearing the Wu-Tang luminary reel off lines like, "Turn a square dance into a passion-hug," and, "Tender as the finger-touch of a new-born kid/I wouldn't trade her smile for a million quid," is jarring to say the least.

        Then there's Retrograde, Overgrown's lead single, and the best song of Blake's career thus far. Building out of almost nothing before turning it up to 11 just after the minute-and-a-half mark, the song's mysterious structure plateaus into crashing tidal waves of synths, trapping us inside of its white-knuckle grip. It's a track that balances beauty with intensity, new technology with olden structures, and just about every genre James Blake has touched up to this point (which is most of them, right?). That strange brew the troubadour seems to be working on for the entirety of the album is tantalizingly whole for all of 3:44, and then it's gone, sending index fingers racing for the, 'replay,' button.

        Overgrown is an album of growing pains, the work of an artist reaching for something truly transcendent. As Blake admits on that creaky, minimal title-track, "(He doesn't) want to be a star/But a stone on the shore/Long door, frame the wall/When everything's overgrown." If all the British wunderkind wanted was to continuously see his name up in lights, then following the exact path of previous success had to be his safest route. But Blake is more interested in the long run, being the rock that remains firm despite the continuous turning of the tides, a necessary element in a world full of disposable excess. It's a more-than-worthy goal, and I for one think the guy's got the chops to do it, but you don't get there by walking in a straight line. Overgrown might be something of a step back from James Blake, but it shows that one of music's most singular and wildly-talented voices is on the right track, and doesn't mind getting his hands a little dirty in order to stay there.

Grade: B

Friday, April 5, 2013

Kurt Vile: Wakin On A Pretty Daze (Release Date: 4-9-2013)

        In the rock genre, as well as at certain bars the nation over, effortlessness is often synonymous with cool. Just ask The Strokes, who used to play their every song with the nonchalance of a throw-away, until all their songs actually became throw-aways. Or Lou Reed, who remains a legend in the art of letting half-baked sentiments fall slowly out of his throat as if he couldn't care less about the words themselves. The modern landscape is saturated with artists well-versed in the art of working way, way smarter-than-harder, from Mac DeMarco, to Devendra Banhart, to Real Estate, but only one man is allowed to sit upon the throne. Heavy hangs the crown on Kurt Vile's head, the unrivaled ruler of Couldn't-Care-Less Kingdom, and Wakin On A Pretty Daze is nothing if not a massive reaffirmation of his kingship.

        Over 20 minutes longer than its lauded forbearer (Smoke Ring For My Halo) despite occupying the very same number of tracks, Wakin's songs are much more expansive and loosely constructed than their 2011 relatives. Seven of the disc's eleven tunes unspool over 5+ minutes, as compared to three on Vile's previous effort, the extra time gently peeling away layers of verse-chorus-verse rhetoric, unearthing an endless buffet of head-spinning axe-work. Opener Wakin On A Pretty Day, which felt like an unruly lead single upon initial release in early February, turns out to be a mission statement of sorts; the nine-and-a-half-minute jam session is far too long and hookless to have any business on the radio, but its enveloping, hypnotic powers are not to be doubted, and perfectly previewed what was on the way.

        Vile's guitar solos, which I'd wager make up at least half of the album's runtime (and much more than half of the aforementioned single), aren't the face-melters that one often associates with long-haired men doing battle on a fret board, but are entirely more intrinsic and inviting beasts. Everything Kurt Vile does with a six string feels natural and instinctive, each note perfectly selected, never straining or trading control for speed like so many of his rocker peers. Sure, a more lazy voice behind a microphone would be difficult to find, but the troubadour's croon, in both lyrics and intonation, has always taken a backseat to his instrumentation, a notion that Daze's thickened sonic world pushes even further. Vile even invites you in on this mixing room hierarchy, calling himself out of the sublimely speedy, aptly-titled Was All Talk by claiming, "There was a/Time in my/Life when they/Thought I was/All talk... Now take a look at my hands/Watch them go/Watch them go/Yeah, I'm going/Yeah, I'm gone." The majesty of the man's music comes not from his throat, but from his fingers.

        The difference between a, 'good,' Pretty Daze track and a, 'bad,' one is almost impossible to discern with the naked ear; pointing out specific high-points is a lot less important than just hitting play. That being said, the slow-burn groove of Girl Called Alex is worth celebrating, as is the sun-soaked mischief of Shame Chamber. Songs this perfect don't just write themselves, a fact that Vile reminds us of on his slow-motion wonderment of a closing track Goldtone, declaring, "Sometimes when I get in my zone/You'd think I was stoned/But I never, as they say/Touch the stuff." His glorious naturalism is the product of practice and fuss, a fact evidenced by the layers upon layers of exactingly-placed sounds that swirl astoundingly at the end of nearly every tune. That he can make it all look so easy is just the cherry on top, a dollop of performance art cool atop what simply has to be a painstakingly made work of art. Wakin is the finest Guy-Picks-Up-A-Guitar-And-Just-GOES album in recent memory, and an absolute assault on anyone who's ever had the audacity to call the guitar solo dead. Will you just go get it already?

Grade: A-