15 June 2011
James Blake – Koko, London
Dubstep's most divisive crossover star is gunning for greatness... but will he succeed?
Words Alex Denney
Photography Sam Peach
“London… It’s good to be back,” says James Blake, looking every inch the oldest swinger in town as he makes his entrance onstage tonight. And, given the jailbait hordes of post-dubsteppers that have followed in this 21-year-old Londoner’s wake, maybe he’s entitled to feel that way.
Certainly, Blake’s self-titled debut from last year aspired to a maturity of voice and composition not normally found in anyone less than ten years his senior. Snubbing the soul-inflected dubstep he’d made his name from off the back of two wonderful EPs, ‘CMYK’ and ‘Klavierwerke’, the LP instead took cues from avant-leaning songwriters like Antony Hegarty, Dave Longstreth and Justin Vernon, turning in a minimal set that too often laid bare Blake’s shortcomings as a fledgling songwriter.
But fair play to the boy — despite the off-putting whiff of faux-maturity, at least he’s daring to pit his wits against the greats, and his superlative arrangements of Feist and Joni Mitchell songs suggest that, once the songwriting skills catch up, he’ll have the guts and sensitivity to give it a fair old crack, too.
Appearing tonight with guitarist and drummer in tow, Blake perches on a stool surrounded by synthesisers as low lights project a smokey, studio session intimacy that belies the rather grand setting. He kicks off with the warped finger clicks of ‘Unluck’, the vocal niceties of which are lost somewhat under all the autotune gargling, like 808s-era Kanye blubbing in the bathtub. ‘Give Me My Month’’s solo piano rendition fares a little better, but it’s ‘Tep & The Logic’’s eerie Martian dub with wordless vocal sobs that announce Blake’s talents best; a bonus track from the album more in line with the ‘Klavierwerke’ style.
‘I Never Learned To Share’’s Antony Hegarty-isms are distracting and even unflattering given that Blake’s voice, whatever its merits, falls some distance short of the former’s sublime croon. Moreover, the track doesn’t seem to work any better with the proper dub weight afforded it by the (struggling) PA. Along with the smug-sounding ‘Wilhelm’s Scream’, such displays of firepower only serve to underline the slenderness of conceit underpinning these rather empty exercises in sonic technique.
‘Lindesfarne’’s deep-freeze, vac-packed vocals and sparse acoustic backing at least function as a song should, but we’re too close to Bon Iver country here to call it a triumph on Blake’s own terms. Better is ‘To Care Like You’’s lump-in-throat crooning and dour organ strokes, which are deftly offset by quick, pattering percussion. Next comes a welcome airing of the title track from ‘CMYK’, archly introduced by Blake as being “kind of new to us,” in reference to the track’s freshly minted live incarnation. Worryingly, though, this most blissful of dancefloor moments sounds in danger of sagging under the weight of its new arrangement, but then halfway in the drummer gives it a clattering, UK funky-ish twist, which finally kicks things into gear.
After which he fires up ‘Limit To Your Love’ with an imperious wave of his piano hand, and it’s clear why this is still the best moment of Blake’s post-post-dubstep career — completely sensual and ‘present’ in a way other tracks on James Blake are not, it’s one of the few instances where the cleverness of the arrangement doesn’t overshadow the sentiment. Wringing maximum effect from the lingering silences, he gives the song an extended dub workout, lazy rimshot cracks and all.
For the time being, though, it’s the numbers which retain some of the early dancefloor blueprint which resonate most deeply — putting in a shout-out to all his early adopterz, Blake gives an excellent rendition of the title track off the ‘Klavierwerke EP’, finding a way to bring the track to climax without things getting unduly messy — with a hissing, popping tech-house finale which suggests just a whisper of euphoria peeking from behind its veil of sadness. And the disquieting brass flourishes Blake adds to an epic cover of Digital Mysitkz’ ‘Anti War Dub’ are terrific, conjuring great tidal swells of menace with just a few smart touches.
It’s two of the newer tracks, however, which offer the strongest clues as to where the young musician is headed next. First, there’s the cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’, blessed with perhaps Blake’s strongest vocal performance of the evening. Mitchell seems a natural fit for Blake, in a way, as pop music’s pre-eminent poet of urbane sophistication. Her influence is certainly felt on the newest song to receive an airing tonight (mysteriously titled ‘E___ T___’ on the setlist), performed solo at the piano with Blake’s sonic arsenal neatly packed and folded away. “We can hope for heartbreak now,” croons Blake softly. The bangers may have been put to bed for good, but stick with James Blake awhile yet: he may just end up growing into that pipe and slippers.