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A little better than white noise: James Blake at the Metro

by Greg Sheer

Singer-songwriter/electro-outsider James Blake rolled through Chicago this past Thursday night, along with opener FaltyDL, to play a sold out crowd at the Metro in Lakeview. The packed show had been much anticipated given the hype surrounding the relatively new British artist’s performance at South By Southwest this past year.

Controversy doesn’t necessarily capture it. In other words, there’s very little going on in his music that’s salacious. But the meshing of post-dub bass with down-tempo ballad-ish vocals evokes, amongst a host of other thoughts and feelings, some head scratching.

Although it doesn’t translate via his recorded work, Blake’s live shows are definitively identifiable by the low-end frequencies that literally dominate the listener’s attention. Notably, artist’s most confusing choice is the use of the said low-frequencies for their melodic qualities as opposed to rhythmic: dub-step fans shouldn’t expect the drops defining that genre. By the same token, fans of his sing-songy dirge-reminiscent vocals should anticipate them being lost in a droning sea of bass. It was probably most obvious during his performance of “I never learnt to share,” with three different vocals in place, a wall of slow, tyrannical, bowel-jarring, chest-cavity-invading bass drowned out almost everything – Blake, his guitarist, and the drummer.

There isn’t quite the ‘ghost of humanity in a digital world’ zeitgeist that rocketed Radiohead into popularity with OK Computer. Nor is there really the thoughtfulness as a lyricist one might associate with others in the singer-songwriter niche (though the timbre and execution in Blake’s singing voice are spot-on).

But despite all that, Blake and his band did manage to achieve some really striking moments of clarity, emerging from the murkiness, that force a conscientious listener to reconsider dismissing his music. The happy medium might be in its literal experiential qualities: whether or not the music resonates emotionally, the bass will resonate with you, physically. It’s trance music, achieved by vibration rather than rhythm. And, at least on paper, that’s got a lot of potential.