He sits atop a swiveling stool behind two decks of keys at a perpendicular angle and hums the first few measures of “Retrograde” into the mic, and he’s recording it, unbeknownst to the audience, to loop it for the rest of the song. Without even opening his mouth, he’s simply dazzling, running from note to note with grace and subtlety. His wiry, long dark brown hair hides his pale, English face just a little, as he bobs his head with his fingers on the keys.
James Blake is a pianist, producer and singer, but in which order is indecipherable. The man’s a powerhouse in terms of a pioneering sound, a rising star in an increasingly fickle and discerning, critical community. And on Saturday night, he’ll touch down at the TLA.
The 24-years-young Londoner made a big splash with a few songs back in 2010, particularly the stunning “CMYK,” a chopped and screwed track that features bits of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” and Blake’s innovative production. His talent is his ear for harmony through dissonance and colliding genres: R&B meets house meets folk meets pop. He became a favorite of the BBC and cemented himself as a musican-to-watch with a killer cover of Feist’s “There’s a Limit to Your Love,” again with a sickening ear for the nuance of a heavy beat, a tricked-out snare that harkens back to Massive Attack and Aphex Twin. Later that year, he was nominated to the BBC’s “Sound of 2011” Poll and placed second—ahead of The Vaccines and Jamie Woon, but behind that confounded Jessie J. A few months later, he issued his self-titled debut, and the second single, “The Wilhelm Scream,” lifted his record to lofty, buzzworthy status. He’s never really come down.
One of the best things about Blake is the blend of heartbreaking lyricism he lays bare atop his slick, stylish production tricks. “I Never Learnt to Share” features a repetitive “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them.” His song “Why Don’t You Call Me” feels like a taboo; boys are always supposed to be the ones leaving girls hanging. His outstanding take on Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You,” from an EP later that year called Enough Thunder, was one of those moments when it feels like a cover actually does more than justice to the original by making you revisit both versions with new wonder. And on The Late Show with David Letterman Monday night, during his performance of “Retrograde,” Blake found himself repeating the phrase “We’re alone now.” His songs lend themselves to the personal—the confessional, the exploration of loss and longing, exorcising sadness and desire.
And, of course, there’s that voice. Capable of compelling acrobatics and a range that drops, dips, jumps and rises at will, there’s wisdom in it that belies his 24 years. On the Late Show stage, he hauled in some faux stained glass windows, singing and tinkling his keyboards in front of a vaguely religious visual. Blake feels distinctly nonreligious, however, something about his vocals is godly. His guttural wail, that hides occasionally behind a computerized auto-tuned flourish, likens his talent to that of Antony and the Johnsons. On his month-old latest, Overgrown, he experiments more with electronics than ever before and even collaborates with RZA on the excellent “Take a Fall for Me.” So this week’s show should be a beautiful, heady mix of electronic beats, plus gentle percussion, piano mastery, new wave gospel singing and contemplatively devastating wordplay.
Sat., May 11. 8pm. $25. Theatre of Living Arts, 334 South St. 215.922.1011. tlaphilly.com
PW's Music Issue 2014