London-Based Producer Proves Your Dubstep Can Use Some Soul

James Blake
James Blake
Atlas / A&M

You can usually pull off dubstep by sticking to a formula — bust out some syncopated beats and face-melting wobbly bass (you know, that distinct “wobwobwobwob” sound) — and you’re ready to invade dorm rooms everywhere.

But 22-year-old UK import James Blake is breaking away from the grimy pack. On last year’s Klavierwerke EP, the London-based producer tore up his roots to stretch the boundaries of what dubstep can be. The record’s four songs — primarily composed of sampled and distorted footage of Blake singing and playing piano at home — introduced elements of soul and outright silence to the mix, solidifying Blake’s position as one of the most forward-thinking artists in electronic music.

Now, on his self-titled, full-length debut, Blake exceeds the expectations set by his first three EPs (and his second-place finish on BBC’s “Sound of 2011” poll) by progressing even further. Blake isn’t just a beat-maker anymore. He’s doing the unthinkable: writing actual pop songs.

Good ones.

Single “The Wilhelm Scream” has Blake breaking out his best Marvin Gaye imitation, expressing uncertainty and remorse with a kind of emotional impact rarely achieved by traditional singer-songwriters, let alone avant-garde dubstep producers.

Even on more dance-oriented tracks like “I Mind” and “To Care (Like You),” Blake imbues his digital compositions with vulnerable vocal performances that impart a strong sense of presence.

On the outstanding “I Never Learnt To Share,” Blake manipulates layers of vocal tracks and surrounds them with beds of chilly synthesizers. The slow build-up takes some patience, but the restraint makes the final dub-dissonance all the more dramatic.

Even when the album doesn’t engage in sonic trickery, the songs impress with their emotional impact alone. With that kind of ingenuity, James Blake is as promising an electronic debut as there’s been in a while. (8/10)