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Tag: james blake

Song of the Week: Movement – Like Lust


If you could create a musical baby between James Blake and Massive Attack, it would probably come out sounding pretty close to what Movement is doing right now. They’re the sort of band that likes to blur the lines between genres and refuse to be easily pinned down, though you can suss out a few major themes in both this song “Like Lust” and the track “Us,” which they released last fall. Both are intensely beat driven, dark grooves that contain multitudes of subtext beyond what you might otherwise pick up on with just a single listen. Similar things can be said about the vocals, which are soft but hint at an intensity and passion, particularly as the line, “When it feels like lust,” fades in and out, symbolically rising to the occasion. The buildup for the synths is noteworthy as well for how it changes the direction of the song ever so slightly to keep you invested for about a minute longer than what might seem reasonable. With tour dates supporting sonic cousins Darkside and their debut EP out in April, Movement have rightly earned themselves a position as a band to watch. Let’s hope they keep cranking out tracks as good as the ones we’ve heard so far.

Album Review: Active Child – You Are All I See [Vagrant]


Last summer, Active Child released the “Curtis Lane” EP. It was a collection of 6 songs that made for a fascinating introduction to Pat Grossi’s pet project, unique in the way that harp, synths and vocals were all blended, chopped and screwed into an electronic filter with dizzying results. The crossroads that EP presented were directional, with Grossi taking a shot at the slow moving and shimmery synth melodies on one side and more beat-driven 80s dance numbers on the other. Everything worked together relatively well, but the dichotomy suggested that he’d need to make a clearer and bolder choice of direction for whatever he chose to record next. It’s been over a year, one mostly filled with extensive touring around the world, but Active Child finally got around to making a debut full length, titled “You Are All I See”. With his harp and a powerful falsetto voice that even angels are jealous of, Grossi has taken a sharper turn towards ethereal beauty and away from the dance floor, and it’s doubtful anybody will disagree with that decision.

Just because Grossi has made the right decision when it comes to Active Child’s overall sound doesn’t mean that “You Are All I See” is automatically a great record. The title track that starts the record begins with waterfalls of harp eventually leading to touches of synth and that heavenly vocal rising above it all, often overdubbed to create soaring harmonies. Those first four minutes are so gorgeous that you get the sense nothing else on the album will be able to top it from a beauty perspective. That’s pretty much true, but beauty isn’t everything, and a number of other tracks come close to that same level of musical splendor anyways. Electronic textures and synths take over on first single “Hanging On”, and the results sound a bit like something that Justin Vernon’s side project Volcano Choir might put out, but with a little more mainstream R&B influence. The R&B aspect goes into full gear courtesy of “Playing House”, Grossi’s team-up with How to Dress Well aka Tom Krell. If you’re looking for an indie version of a sexy jam to “get it on” to, here’s your track. The slow clap looped beat matched against high-pitched synths and Krell’s expressive vocal (with Auto-Tune harmonies) not to mention seductive lyrics create the perfect environment for taking off your clothes and making some sweet love. Go ahead and give it a try. Let me know how it went afterwards.

As “You Are All I See” fully develops, in spite of a few stylistic shifts the majority of it maintains a delicate 80s electro-synth-pop vibe, its closest cousin actually being the last M83 album “Saturdays=Youth”. The main issue is that it’s not nearly as energetic or engrossing as M83, often adopting a more meditative tone that becomes formless and drags after awhile. Even Grossi’s consistent and dynamite voice can’t quite save much of the middle of the record. “See Thru Eyes” and “High Priestess” in particular fail to inspire in the wake of the first third of the album. When “Way Too Fast” shows up, the minimalist electro atmospherics blended with Grossi’s vocals pitch-shifted through multiple filters makes it sound like an outtake from the James Blake record. It actually makes for one of the most fascinating moments on the entire album even if it doesn’t quite equal the high watermark Blake established earlier this year. Almost like a cast off from the “Curtis Lane” EP, “Shield and Sword” brings the tempo to dance club level but stops short of becoming fully fleshed out and engaging. It also feels just a slight bit out of place.

If there’s hope for “You Are All I See”, it comes in the form of closing track “Johnny Belinda”. There are many ways to describe the track, whether it be operatic, cinematic or even symphonic, but primarily it’s just plain epic. The army of violins and cellos create a massive and ominous rumble while harp gets sprinkled in as a bit of extra spice and beauty. Grossi’s voice, backed by some operatic moans, tells the sad tale of lost love. It is the sonic equivalent of a man adrift at sea in a small lifeboat as a storm rages and waves crash on top of him. And it works. To think that one man (with obvious help) could put together an immense track like that proves that this is a project worth keeping an eye on. If every track on “You Are All I See” was this well written and composed, Active Child would have a game-changing album on his hands. Unfortunately a couple clunkers pushes it off the mark and leaves us to wonder what might have been. The record’s primary issue though is virtually the same problem that has plagued Active Child from the beginning – an inability to commit to one particular style or another. Grossi has broadened his horizons rather than reduced them, going from R&B one moment to synth-pop the next, with shades of soul, classical, gospel and a number of other styles in between. Simply having your record sound beautiful doesn’t mean you’re stylistically dialed in. Hopefully from touring around this record Grossi will learn what works best and streamline that approach for the next record.

Active Child – Playing House (Ft. How To Dress Well)

Active Child – Hanging On (White Sea Remix)

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Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 1 Recap

Ugh. It has been a long day for yours truly. Didn’t anticipate my day/evening going so late, so this initial recap of Day 1 of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival is going to be a little shorter and more to the point than much of everything else I plan on writing about over the course of the weekend. But fun was the name of the game today, and to call it a great day would not be an incorrect statement. Let me tell you a brief bit about the music I bore witness to, as well as maybe a couple other quick notes about things that went down on Day 1.

Due to an unfortunate vehicular mishap, in which my car broke down and refused to start, I wound up arriving at the Pitchfork Music Festival about 45 minutes later than I had originally planned. Still, it left me just enough time to see the last couple songs from EMA. Erika M. Anderson is her full name when not being referenced in acronym format, and she had a couple friends backing her up to handle much of the instrumental work. The two songs I saw her perform were solid renditions, in particular her single “California”, in which she did a lot of the same hand gestures that can be found in the video for said song. Fun isn’t the best word to describe what I saw, but very capable and strong are probably two solid descriptors. A few hours after her set, I was being taken on a brief tour of the backstage area and stumbled upon EMA. She was sitting in the grass by herself with a guitar and was making notes on some pieces of paper. In all likelihood she was writing a song, and hopefully something at the festival inspired her to do so.

My most hotly anticipated act of the day (and essentially the weekend) was tUnE-yArDs. After the massive number of raves I heard about Merrill Garbus and her intense performances, there was a little chill that went down my spine on the quite hot day when she began to belt her vocals into the microphone. Creating all sorts of vocal and instrumental loops, watching her put together songs like “Gangsta” and “Powa” was thrilling enough even if you threw away the actual songs. She didn’t do much to actually improve upon the recorded versions of the stuff on “w h o k i l l”, but then again she didn’t need to. That record is still amazing, and just seeing the songs come together live was the treat. Hopefully many were won over by her stellar performance. While I skipped seeing Battles in favor of tUnE-yArDs, all my friends chose to abandon me, claiming I made the wrong choice. They came away with nothing but raves for Battles’ set, and given to how they are dynamite live, the reaction felt sensible.

Thurston Moore was next, as I was intrigued to see what he would do. His backing band consisted of one guitar, one drummer, one violinist and one harpist. Yep, he had a harp with him and its lilting melodies were built into a lot of the songs. Moore also had a music stand with plenty of sheet music on it, which begged the question of how well he knew the songs he was playing. And virtually the entire thing wound up being a flop. Standing out in the hot sun and watching Thurston play slow acoustic numbers was not a good time. Early on in his set, he jokingly asked if everyone was ready to hear some songs about rape and other dark things, clearly trying to make light of the fact that OFWGKTA would be performing on that very stage in a couple days. There will be protesters for that, and come to think of it, people should have protested Moore’s set as well for being rather pedestrian and boring. Everything was capably performed, and much of the material came via his latest solo effort “Demolished Thoughts”. No Sonic Youth was played, but to close out his set, Moore told the crowd, “my band is saying that we should play a rock song”, a statement that was met with applause. The spark that ignited within the last few minutes of that set was what the entire thing should have been made out of. There’s always next time. If you went and saw Curren$y, consider yourself lucky.

The great news is that Guided By Voices were up next, and the very first thing that Robert Pollard asked the crowd was whether or not they were ready to see a real professional rock show. Hell yes, the crowd was ready. And GBV gave everyone exactly what they were looking for. Chain smoking on stage, wielding a bottle of alcohol, windmill guitar work, Neko Case on tambourine, jumping around like a madman, salutes, the hoisting of guitars high into the sky, the pointing of the necks of the guitars out at the crowd in a threatening and stabbing motions – all these things happened during that set. To call it awesome would be putting it lightly. These guys are all music veterans, and instead of slowing down their set was filled with visceral energy – the sort of which is missing in so many rock bands these days. Not only that, but they did all this while running through “hit” after “hit” (the quotation marks are used because despite a long career the band never achieved massive success to justify anything of theirs being a hit according to today’s standards). They hit up “Hot Freaks” “Tractor Rape Chain”, “Kicker of Elves” and “I Am A Scientist” (among many others) from their seminal album “Bee Thousand”. Their other big record was “Alien Lanes”, and tracks like “Game of Pricks” and “They’re Not Witches” sounded even better now than they did back in the day. So to recap: Guided By Voices put on one hell of a great show. And in that same way it’s sad, because there’s only a couple shows left with their “classic” lineup in place. They’re probably never going to do this again, so if you saw them at Pitchfork consider yourself lucky.

Neko Case is such an effortless charmer of a woman. There’s a certain sweetness to her, and maybe the down-home alt-country bits of her music are big contributors to that. One of the more interesting things about her is the backing band she surrounds herself with. The guys in the band were all older gentlemen complete with beards and a few extra pounds, and that alone was enough to make you think they belonged in a country band you’d stumble in and catch one night at some random bar. Who knows, maybe that’s where she met them. In spite of their appearances, they’re also excellent musicians, which is likely the reason why Case picked them in the first place. But that syrupy sweet voice of hers is in as good of shape as ever these days, and the set list mixing old songs, newer songs, and the newest of the new gave it plenty of workout. Case is currently hard at work on new material, so she did play a couple new ones during her set which were on par with everything else she’s done to date, if not better. The biggest crowd responses were for “Hold On, Hold On” and “People Got A Lotta Nerve”, and given their radio single status it’s no wonder why. There was no real reason for me to leave Neko Case, but after awhile I chose to wander over and at least check out James Blake‘s set for a few minutes. My concern initially was that his very quiet and minimalist self-titled debut would not translate well in an outdoor park. Outside of some seriously heavy bass, I’m pretty sure I was correct on that one.

Last but certainly not least, Animal Collective closed out the night in the headliner slot. It seems they got the love note I left them criticizing the very fluid and ever-changing dynamic of their live shows. The last time I saw the boys, they spent their festival time slot noodling around with psychedelic textures rather than playing most of the songs that appear on their albums. Think of it like one long acid trip in which many songs are teased but little to none are actually performed. They were on their best behavior at Pitchfork 2011 though, actually playing songs all the way through and even adding a few brief moments of silence from when one song ends and another begins. Call it common courtesy, and it made the set very bearable and remarkably fun. There was plenty of dancing going on, not to mention the glowsticks and an inflatable Spider-Man that became a part of the party. There were a handful of new songs sprinkled into the set as well, all of which sounded more than fine but with fewer harmonies than their last album “Merriweather Post Pavilion”. Between those elements and the neat stage setup complete with light-up rock-like structures and hanging shapes attached overhead by strings of lights. Animal Collective took their headlining job seriously and left the crowd in a better place compared to how they found them.

In case you couldn’t gather already, the entire day was nothing short of great. I’m very much looking forward to Day 2 tomorrow, but at this very moment sleep beckons. I’ll have photos for you as soon as I’m able. Check back for my Day 2 Recap overnight tomorrow night.

Album Review: SBTRKT – SBTRKT [Young Turks]


Let’s get the clarifications out of the way right from the start: when talking about SBTRKT, feel free to pronounce it “subtract”. This isn’t MGMT, where they get upset if you call them “management”. Of course saying each individual letter S-B-T-R-K-T can be a bit stressful to the tongue versus how much easier the 4 letters of M-G-M-T are to rattle off. So save some breath and just keep it simple. That could also very well be the unofficial motto of SBTRKT’s self-titled debut. Calling it easy on the ears is accurate, but by no means should that indicate that the music is dumbed down or skewed purposely towards picking up as many new fans as possible. Downbeat electro minimalism is the name of the game, and unlike his similar counterparts in a James Blake or Jamie Woon, SBTRKT isn’t trying to make his music glitchy or tough to follow. Compelling and expertly crafted seems to be good enough for him, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us.

You should know that SBTRKT is less of a musician and more of a producer. He’s helped out a number of artists and done plenty of remixes, to the point where he’s known much more for that stuff than any original material he’s put together himself. In creating his own songs, most everything is electro-heavy without much in the way of actual live instrumentation. There are vocals on most of his songs, but they’re never his own. Guests on his debut album include Sampha, Little Dragon and Roses Gabor, among others, all contributing their voices to songs that are tight and engaging while holding onto a grand sense of modesty. The couple instrumentals definitely hold their own, but SBTRKT is smart in spacing them out across the album to avoid running into too many quiet, vocal-less passages. Additionally, the emphasis placed on the song itself rather than a particular beat or other element gives each track an earnest and more pop-driven appeal than a lot of the other music coming out of this particular subgenre.

While the first couple tracks on the album are by no means bad, it’s not until “Wildfire” hits that things really start to take hold. Little Dragon’s super smooth vocals are a big part of what makes it work so well, very much akin to her guest spot on the song “Empire Ants” from last year’s Gorillaz record “Plastic Beach”. Sampha does the wealth of singing on the album, guesting on about half the tracks. His voice has a distinct quality to it that works well in an R&B sort of way, and thankfully SBTRKT provides him with the necessary backing elements to pull off a solid assist. “Trials of the Past” is his biggest moment on the album, though “Something Goes Right” is pretty accurately titled as well. Roses Gabor’s turn on “Pharoahs” makes for a later highlight too. What surprising is how remarkably solid the entire album feels. For something that’s got a mixture of guest appearances, it could easily have fallen into territory like UNKLE, where the list of contributing artists can make or break it. Whether it’s one or three or ten, SBTRKT is smart enough to have the guests play to his strengths rather than the other way around.

Putting it bluntly, SBTRKT is for the crowds that have wanted to get into the more downtempo, quieter side of electronica but have had a tough time doing so because other artists have made it difficult to do so. They’re simply flexing their creative muscles to their maximum, and interesting though it may be, commercially appealing it is not. SBTRKT may not have any full-on club hits via his self-titled debut, but at the very least this is a wholly listenable and remarkably interesting set of songs. Experimental may not be the operative word that comes into play, but when you know how to put together a strong set of songs, the innovative side isn’t necessarily the most important one. Not knowing much about what a SBTRKT record might sound like considering his pedigree and initial EP, this record is a pleasant surprise. If he’s able to continue to put together albums this good, keep an eye and an ear out – SBTRKT is one to watch.

SBTRKT – Wildfire

Buy “SBTRKT” from Amazon

Album Review: James Blake – James Blake [Atlas/A&M/Universal Republic]


If you pay close attention to the hype cycles around the music world, there’s a great chance you’ve heard of James Blake. The 23-year-old British artist/producer began to make a name for himself last year when he released three EPs of music that’s often been described as “dubstep”. The word is in quotes there because the definition of dubstep varies from person to person and in the end is probably not the best word to use when talking about James Blake’s sound anyways. What he did on those EPs was to craft a subtle electro-based dance landscape from synths and vocoders and a host of other very modern computer-related bits, and then typically added vocal samples from a number of old school R&B artists ranging from Aaliyah to R. Kelly. Oftentimes those vocals were so mangled or chopped up that you couldn’t tell who the original artist was anyways. It was fascinating stuff, and original enough to get him not only noticed but the subject of a number of “2011 Artists to Watch” lists. The assertion was only supported further by Blake’s cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” that came out late last year as an advance single from his self-titled debut record. Oddly enough, his version of the song, which paired very sparse piano and his own voice, was pretty different from his prior EP work. It also turned out that Blake’s voice, which had been used very sparingly on the EPs, had a certain fragility and emotion locked within it, drawing easy comparisons to Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Antony Hegarty.

For his debut full-length, James Blake foregoes any vocal samples from other artists, along with some of the more danceable moments of his earlier EPs. Instead he’s made what amounts to a quiet exercise in minimal, somber electronica paired with some serious soul/R&B influence. He sings on most every track, though you can’t always call what he does singing considering how distorted or chopped up it gets. That’s part of what makes this album unique – it’s the way he’s able to blend some of the most classic elements in music with some of the most advanced technology available today. A great reference point for the sound would be to say that it’s like if Burial, How to Dress Well and Bon Iver had a baby. Opening track “Unluck” plods along with some synths and the slow click of a metronome while there’s some skittering electronic percussion that sounds a lot like a spray paint can being shook up and periodically applied to a brick wall. Blake’s soulful vocals are heavily run over with Autotune, to the point where it’s just a little tough to understand what he’s saying. But as things move along the synths build and then fade and Blake’s voice begins to build upon itself until there are multiple Autotuned versions singing either in unison or working a harmony angle that’s halting, weird, haunting and beautiful. Similar to how Kanye West repurposed Bon Iver’s “Woods” for the track “Lost in the World”, “Unluck” takes that same concept in the opposite direction, instead of making a club banging rap track it remains a somber meditation with dragging electro-beats and synths instead. “I don’t know about my dreams/I don’t know about my dreamin’ anymore/All that I know is I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin’, fallin'” are the lines repeated over and over again for the duration of “The Wilhelm Scream” (along with “love” replacing all the “dreams”). It’s an aching and clear vocal from Blake, spread atop some quiet synths and laid back beats. The more times Blake runs through those lines though, the louder the noise behind him becomes, until eventually the synths and the beats overtake his vocal, leaving him just an echo in the distance, before dropping out quickly back to their original quiet state. Despite the lack of variation in the lyrics, Blake’s repetition goes a long way towards forcing the song to be memorable, and there’s enough going on in the background to prevent it from becoming an annoyance. In that sense there’s a little bit of genius in the song.

On “I Never Learnt to Share”, there’s even fewer lyrics to go on, as the lines, “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/but I don’t blame them” are again repeated ad nauseum. Blake’s vocal is the only thing you hear the first three times he runs through the lyrics, but each time adds another overdubbed harmony to increase the complexity and beauty of it. Once that’s clear, the synths and a beat come in low at first before finally building to a somewhat loud and vibrant lyricless final minute that’s just as interesting as the 4 minutes of development that preceeded it. The Autotune is once again very liberally applied to “Lindisfarne I”, a track that is 99% vocals, save for about 4 or 5 single keyboard notes that brush across the sonic palette in the last 45 seconds of the 2.5+ minute duration. The point of the song is less about the lyrics, which are again indecipherable, or even the strength of the singing really. These things are more of a means to an end, the ultimate goal being to explore the pregnant pauses between the words. At some moments Blake finishes a line and then purposely waits just long enough in silence to make it uncomfortable before dishing out the next one. If it sounds like some pretentious bullshit chances are it is, but the restraint and calculation of it is pretty damn impressive. The sequel “Lindisfarne II” is still Autotuned, but in a way where you can understand more lyrics, and with some backing beats and a quietly strummed (but distorted in the background) acoustic guitar. Blake’s cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” is the centerpiece of the record and the most straightforward thing you’ll hear on it as well. His clear vocals are strikingly great and dramatic, his cadence exactly the same as Feist’s on her original. The lush, symphonic elements of the original are stripped back to just piano and voice, though with a couple small electro-noise interludes between the lines. It’s tough to outdo Feist on her own song, but Blake’s very sensitive and quiet approach to the track brings a special quality to it you won’t find anywhere else.

The second half of the record features a number of odd choices that challenge as much as they confound. The very brief “Give Me My Month” is yet another piano and voice track that matches up very well next to “Limit to My Love”, and it’s one of the few moments of respite before things go off the deep end. “To Care (Like You)” is a glitchy electro-synth track that sees Blake manipulating his voice to sound somewhere between a woman and a child for about half of it, essentially creating one odd duet between his regular voice and the severely tweaked one. They switch off what might be considered verses in a very strange but lyrically strong love song. Remember when everyone carried around Discman portable CD players instead of iPods? The biggest flaw with the portable CD player was always when you were doing something active with it or accidentally dropped it in the middle of a song and it’d skip. That was sometimes even the case if your CD was scratched up enough. The track you were listening to would skip around, searching for the next clean spot to keep playing at. The experience would often give a song a disjointed feel, and courtesy of the songs “Why Don’t You Call Me” and “I Mind”, James Blake exploits this issue to no end. “Why Don’t You Call Me” begins as a simple piano and vocal song before getting chopped about. With a simple auditory click you’ll find yourself in the middle of a lyric or chord already struck and being held, and it’d be cause to worry if it wasn’t the same on every format you can listen to the album on. While “I Mind” is very similar, it uses the various chops in audio to create an interesting sort of lyricless groove that works a tiny bit better than you might imagine. It’s one of the few genuine moments on the album that feels like Blake’s 2010 EP stuff, though he’s sampling/cutting his own voice rather than anyone else’s. To close things out, “Measurements” has a very gospel-like feel to it, with some soft and sparse synths assisting a gigantic choir of all James Blakes. He must have overdubbed his voice about 10-15 times to achieve the effect, with everything from baritones to sopranos mixed in and even a touch of Autotune. And as the track drifts off into the night, the synths make their quiet exit, leaving you with just Blake and the many versions of himself. It’s a pretty gorgeous way to end the album and provides a very accurate auditory representation of the hazy photo of Blake that is the album cover. Even when the whole thing is finished you’re still left wondering just what version of James Blake is the real one.

There’s so much that can be said about James Blake, and much of it will either confuse you or just plain give you the wrong impression. What’s written here is probably no different, as this self-titled album is a challenge and a half to describe accurately. It’s a big part of what makes Blake such a compelling artist though, because he defies easy labels or cliches. There’s not much of any song structure or set format across the entire record, even if he does use a lot of the same tools over and over again. Between Autotune and lower register, subdued synths and various slow beats, you’d think a modicum of stability would be established at some point. Just the differences between his EPs and this full length are striking, let alone from track to track. Yet it’s those same elements, purposed and repurposed on the album that provide it with a solid base from which to work. The use of technology to update classic sounds as well, plays a huge part in what makes Blake so original. This Autotuned, electro version of old school soul and R&B can be a bit off-putting and bothersome, especially to long-time devotees of those genres, but the subversion is remarkably refreshing if that’s something you’re looking for. Similarly, this may be the very first album that’s able to use the highly robotic and emotionally stunted Autotune and give it real warmth and feeling. Partial credit goes to Blake’s dramatic singing voice, but the other half is with how he arranges it, either with overdubs and harmonies or with backing melodies that provide ample assistance in that task. Putting all of these varying factors together makes James Blake’s debut album one of the best and most interesting things released so far this year. Given how odd it is, a wide range of reactions is to be expected, but if you’ve got a great degree of appreciation for slow, quiet and innovative music, Blake might be one of your new favorites. Now then – where does he go from here?

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