SXSW 2011, Day 2: James Blake can soar, not fly
Ext. The line for James Blake snaking outside Stubbs -- night
Claims overheard while eavesdropping in line (may or may not be true).
"James Blake cured my son's case of scurvy with his soothing electro-gospel."
"James Blake's cardigan is so silken yet soulful that if you touch it you may turn into marble."
"Have you heard? James Blake is passing out gift certificates to Banana Republic and the Economist to the adoring crowd!"
"Why is everyone waiting to see the 138st best tennis player in the world?"
Twenty-one-year-old London electronic music prodigy James Blake is in an enviable position. A string of EPs created feverish anticipation for his self-titled debut, which also marked his transition into a singer-songwriter from a producer carving up samples and setting them to post-dubstep beats.
Think Bon Iver if he'd exchanged his log cabin and beard for chinos, a stack of Billie Holiday records, a cracked copy of production software Ableton and a prominent place at seminal London dubstep club FWD. Whereas most of the South by Southwest attendees can't tell the difference between Spaceape and Space Ghost, Blake has emerged on their radar largely because he couches his beats in recognizable forms: singing, lyrics, Feist covers.
He's also preternaturally talented and sports the sort of well-groomed affability of a chap you'd want to date your sister. He's the sort of person who makes you want to use the word "chap." And at Stubb's, he had a massive crowd breathless, with his ultra-patient paens to love and loss -- the only decent topics for songwriting (that and bringing the ruckus). Which is the thing -- Blake's new tunes perpetually fail to bring anything above a pensive murmur. They're thoughtful and sad, but often oppresively boring. For all his gifts, his ability to write songs isn't as fully formed as is his compositional ability.
Under the soft lights and smoke of the outdoor venue, Blake's cracked falsetto swooned and soared, twisting and fluttering. It simultaneously managed to be dazzling and dull. Hearing songs such as "The Wilhelm Scream" (video above) in person had a poignance and power that triumphed over the large venue and outdoor acoustics. After all, he had a guitarist and drummer with him to help shore up the paper-thin constructions. It was electronic gospel, but it lacked the evangelical fervor of the best of the genre. It was pretty and well-groomed, but more Anglican than Baptist -- veneration but no violence. Slow dance music for unreconstructed Coldplay fans.
It's tough to hate on James Blake. He's a likable boy wonder who has great potential for a phenomenal career. But in the moment, it felt like the soundtrack to singing campfire votives to the Lord while intermittently roasting marshmallows and reading the Economist.
-- Jeff Weiss at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas