Live review: James Blake at the Troubadour
Just before his encore at the sold-out Troubadour on Monday night, U.K. singer-producer James Blake had someone to thank. Introducing his last song, a lonely and lilting solo piano cover, he first lauded its songwriter. “She’s been such an influence on my writing for the last year or so, and that she might be here to hear this is such a massive honor.”
Then he played Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” and at that the audience gasped a bit and searched around the room. Sure enough, in the upper VIP balcony, there was the Lady of the Canyon, watching over the proceedings.
The idea that Blake could get Mitchell out to an ostensible dubstep show is a testament to the power of his own vision. His sound draws from many contemporary sources -- beat music’s queasy bass and reverb-sodden percussion; the treated, pinging minimal synths of modernist composers; the androgynous croons of Antony Hegarty and Arthur Russell. But true to his praise for Mitchell, there was a songwriter’s heart to all of it in the way he recontextualized simple sonic ideas to reveal new truths.
There’s no one quite like the 22-year-old Blake working now (much less a peer on a major label like Universal, which released his self-titled debut digitally this year). On Monday night, the thin and stiff-postured Blake unassumingly sat behind dual synthesizers, accompanied by a guitarist and electronic-kit drummer, and didn’t look like he was winding up for a buzzy L.A. debut. But from the first cross-rhythm hi-hat clicks and his bleary vocodered wail on “Unluck,” he instantly drew parallels between the invigorating avant-jazz of peers such as Flying Lotus and the tech-tweaked pop confessionals of recent Kanye West with breathtaking musicianship.
That adventurousness hit hard on “I Never Learnt to Share,” which began with a devastating a capella: “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them.” It’s the song’s only lyric, but over five minutes or so, Blake added little serrated noises and piano and, finally, a deep well of sub-bass that seemed to literally evoke the bottomless sadness of such a lyrical conceit.
Blake has a wonderful de-gendered alto, but his commitment to deconstruction extends to his own presence in a song. On “To Care (Like You),” he pitch-shifted himself into sounding like a whole other person, a tweak that underlined the digital uncanniness that haunts these songs. On the skulking “Klavierwerke,” he wound a single indecipherable vocal phrase around a monolithic but hazy and ephemeral backbeat.
But when the time came for his surprise hit cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” his knack for more classic and emotionally bare pop returned. His band gave the song a menacing low-end grumble that took the lament of the original -- “There’s a limit to your love… like a map with no oceans” -- and made it a fanged accusation here.
And on “The Wilhelm Scream,” the most straightforward vocal effort in his career, he borrowed the hook “I don’t know about my love anymore / I’m falling, might as well fall” from James Litherland’s “Where to Turn” over a crescendoing synthesizer hiss, wringing out a sense of depersonalization and loss. Blake’s father produced Litherland’s original, and as much as Blake’s music is on the knife’s edge of right now, there’s an old and broken heart at its center. Ask Joni if you need more proof.
-- August Brown
Photo: U.K. artist James Blake performs his gauzy, minimal pieces at the Troubador in West Hollywood on Monday. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times