Friday, 7 October 2011

EP Review: James Blake - Enough Thunder

EP number four for hugely hyped London songwriter-producer James Blake, fresh from his stellar self-titled debut released earlier this year. Blake's no stranger to the EP format; indeed it was his triumvirate of EP's - The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke - that garnered praise from both sides of the Atlantic last year, elevating Blake into the most promising 21 year-old bedroom producer by the end of 2010. Admiration latched onto Blake largely due to the unique cocktail his minor handful of tracks stir: woozy R&B soundscapes, clattering piano chords, clipped dub beats and vast spaces of, well, nothing; and was eventually heralded as "post-dubstep" for those who care enough for names. Although a definitive aesthetic seemed to have been wrapped up in time for the album James Blake - signified but by no means limited to the forward single and Blake's most successful track to date, the cover of Feist's "The Limit to Your Love" - a familiarly disparate approach has returned to Enough Thunder, which goes on release next Monday.

During the release week of James Blake back in February, Blake identified two key influential albums which distinctly rub off onto the traditional singer-songwriter quality of his work: Joni Mitchell's Blue and Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago. Both albums and artists are represented here, much as Feist has been already (and with Blake's next biggest track "The Wilhelm Scream" actually being a cover/homage to his father James Litherland's "Where to Turn", might there be a trend emerging?). Blake's cover of Mitchell's "A Case of You" is finally made into a studio recording after its debut as a BBC Radio 1 session piece during that same release week. To be honest, it's the flat-out dud of the six tracks here, especially as James' often beautiful falsetto struggles to  keep the pacing of his piano arrangement (ironically if Blake is known for anything, it's the pacing in his music). Although some credit ought to be given for attempting to make an imprint on such a classic folk ballad, the moment James'  London accent hits the "Oh, Canada" part is it truly realised how disastrous the idea had been. The track feels especially naked when compared to the linear dubstep arrangement "Limit to Your Love" received, as well as the remainder of the EP for that matter.

Unfortunately the much-discussed Bon Iver collaboration "Fall Creek Boys Choir" isn't a major improvement. After multiple listens since it's drop last month it's hard for me to approach the track as anything other than a shorter, less adventurous "Wilhelm Scream" or "Lindisfarne" with Justin Vernon's mapped-on vocal. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but seems rather pointless when stacked up against those tracks. However much other fans of both artists (and believe me I am one of them) seem to enjoy the inspired-on-paper pairing, for me the novelty has very much worn off.

The other four tracks on the other hand are actually as good as to be expected, echoing all of Blake's previous releases up to this point and beyond. "Once We All Agree" opens the set and does well to fill in the space that was for some too abundant on the LP. His familiar vocal delivery, echoed and doubled, becomes twisted into a Strokes-like distorted filter as a floating bass pulse growls under it; and ultimately the whole package is enveloped in a guitar wall-of-sound crescendo which begins in the second half. But the track's most prevalent component is the uneasy, slightly dissonant piano chords (a clear Joni Mitchell influence), caging his voice throughout. The EP as a whole is particularly strong in its piano arrangements, an idea which comes full-circle by the final title track. "Enough Thunder"'s piano borrows from neo-classical, contemporary jazz and songwriters such as Randy Newman, and rarely has Blake's voice sounded so soulful and impassioned, and not struggling to extend its notes like in "A Case of You".

The second track "We Might Feel Unsound" incorporates vocal loops and samples as last year's "CMYK" did, but is more beat-centric, and is defined with a haunting, howling synth. In contrast to Blake's lead vocal the effect is especially chilling, and helps to make Enough Thunder to sound like his darkest release yet; and therefore the most refreshing change of pace for his music. Such has Blake progressed from the Burial-like "classic" dubstep range this is one of only two tracks that sound anything similar to the genre's beginnings. The second track which that statement identifies is "Not Long Now"; which features a "drop" of sorts after the slowly rising beat folds, giving way to a dub bassline similar to that in Radiohead's "The Gloaming", and in effect wipes away all other bubbling textures to build themselves up anew. Blake's multilayered vocals are especially languid, and the familiar pauses return, essentially culminating into the stereotypical James Blake track, and the EP is all the better for it. It takes its time to adapt, and makes "We Might Feel Unsound" feel a tad short in comparison.

Enough Thunder is released in the shadow of three EP's and a hugely acclaimed full-length, and it's great that such an acclaimed artist feels the pleasure of multiple further, diverse releases to compliment his short-so-far career, even if this one in particular lacks the consistency of its predecessors. The EP also follows a comment Blake made to The Boston Phoenix, comparing the modern "macho-ism" found in dubstep's "frat-boy market" to "a pissing competition", a comment that has been re-tweeted and has sent strong resonance throughout the blogosphere. Enough Thunder sees him searching and scooping out a range of alternatives, and although scattershot in comparison to the excellent James Blake (the deluxe edition of which is also being released on Monday, and features the Enough Thunder EP on a second disc; recommended value if you don't own the album), the range on offer, coupled with the knowledge this searching is set to continue, often makes it in some ways more exciting.


The full EP is available for streaming below, courtesy of

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