James Blake returns with his soulful release Overgrown following his dub-heavy EP “Love What Happened Here” released last winter and his self-titled debut full length in 2010. The blend and variety on Overgrown is stronger than his debut, creating a more definitive sound rather than an alternating mixtape of ballads and club music. While still carrying the dub-step label, Blake could not be further from what has come to be termed “bro-step,” coming mostly out of North America.
An artist who performs piano covers of ballads from the likes of Joni Mitchell and Feist, yet performs his own DJ sets in English clubs is difficult to categorize. It’s an unlikely mixture that wouldn’t work well for too many artists, but Blake is very careful in his production and an extraordinarily gifted musician to boot.
The album’s first single “Retrograde” is an excellent example of Blake’s genre-bending in practice. The song begins with a simple bass and clap beat with low piano chords and Blake’s humming. The vocals eventually kick in, but blend softly with the rest of the track until the chorus when the heavy synths pour in and Blake reaches his higher register singing “Suddenly I’m hit/Is this the darkness or the dawn.”
This is Blake’s version of a “drop,” and it feels far more appropriate than some of the abrasiveness that gets tied to the term. Rather than relying on a hodgepodge of raucous noises to drive home the moment, Blake hits one chord and lets it resonate with the listener for a instant. The track flows into a quiet piano ballad “dlm” which recalls back to his cover of Joni Mitchell’s“A Case of You.” The next two tracks “Digital Lion” and “Voyuer” counter “dlm” as the two most definitive dub-step tracks on the record. Both are fun tracks that would fit right in on Blake’s EPs or in a set at a club.
One thing entirely new for James Blake on the record is “Take a Fall For Me” which features RZA of Wu-Tang fame rapping over Blake’s R&B beat. It’s not entirely misplaced, but lacks the dynamics of some of the other tracks on the album. It just isn’t there enough lyrically to stick out on it’s own. Where Blake creates most of his magic is through repetition and through the twisting and manipulation of phrases and chords in a way that makes them grow in different directions.
“A Wilhelm Scream” was particularly famous for that on his debut and “Love Round Here” and “Last of Us” both do a terrific job of emanating the the same practice. Unfortunately there isn’t another track that quite reaches the same high points as “Retrograde,” but just about every track is good enough to warrant the album multiple spins. Overall I gift the album four stars out of five.