James Blake’s rapid evolution from a functional dubstep beat slinger to a producer of strikingly originality has been a case of punctuated equilibrium. But the speed of his transformation isn’t what’s ultimately interesting about Blake’s worth. He is among the most exciting producers right now because he rides that fine line between theory and praxis. By combining dubby bass with German microbeats and American R&B voice snippets, Blake has fashioned something that sounds entirely new. And though we only have a little under an hour’s worth of officially released music, Blake has positioned himself as the producer du jour with his newest EP, Klavierwerke.
On his last taster record, the excellent CMYK, Blake grafted the smallest fragments of American soul onto tiny fine-boned beats. The twin highlights were “CMYK” and “Postpone.” The former is genius-level exercise in sample juggling, though virtuosity has nothing to do with it. The song is incredible because Blake creates a narrative about a women scorned and a mistress slinking around with another’s man by casting samples of Kelis and Aaliyah into character roles. But instead of being gimmicky, the song was strangely and thrillingly affecting. And then “Postpone” recreated soul music in dubstep’s image. The song reimagines nearly every aspect of the Stax sound by recasting the parts: the organ becomes grumbling bass, the horn section morphs into a brassy synth line, and the singers only show up for their most soulful half-notes.
Klavierwerke takes this formula and strips it of almost all recognizable vestiges of R&B. What remains is a spare beat, the occasional plink of a piano, and ghostly pitch-shifted vocals. With these elements arranged, Blake then squeezes and compresses them into tiny, flat shapes that squirm and wiggle. And though the album is composed of microscopic fragments , the songs still feel weighty and consequential. These aren’t charming little numbers that can drift through your headphones; these songs command your attention and reward your patience. The finest moment on the EP is unquestionably “I Only Know (What I Know Now).” A languid beat and a spectral synth line rise and fall, leaving hissing voids in the middle of the song, which Blake fills with an aching vocal sample repeating the titular line. The song’s tone is hard to pin down. Sometimes I think it’s impossibly sad in the way that Portishead could be impossibly sad. Other times, though, it sounds wounded but hopeful. And since the vocal line is repeated a number of times, the moment takes on a different character each time because of subtle changes Blake introduces. Elsewhere, “Tell Her Safe” sounds stubbornly optimistic despite the fact that it sounds like the vocals drowned in a murky lake ages ago. Finally, “Don’t You Think I Do” is a club banger in its embryonic state. Given time, that kick drum would mature and the piano chords would coalesce into a steady melody and the song could be a barn-burner. But as it stands, it sounds like the echo in your head the morning after a night out. In fact, the whole record sounds like the reverberations that haunt your ears on Sunday mornings. Morning after records are a dime a dozen, but almost none of them represent the most promising thing in electronic music right now.
Rating: 8 / 10