James Blake’s “Enough Thunder” EP

“This is an EP of James Blake the performer, the talented pianist and vocalist.” -Grafton Tanner

Grafton Tanner

out of 10

James Blake
Enough Thunder EP
October 18, 2011
Universal Republic

Over the past year and a half, James Blake has released one full-length and four EP’s. A fifth release arrives this December. Each one draws on a different side of Blake, a multi-talented artist who is just as adept at twining synths as he is at belting out piano ballads. Enough Thunder arrives after the release of his first full-length, when the world was given a taste of Blake as an album crafter. At first, Enough Thunder can seem somewhat loose: loosely structured, perhaps loosely composed. It’s definitely a hodge-podge but one that offers up the two sides of Blake.

Opening track “Once We All Agree” straddles the line between piano balladry and something off CMYK. Dirty upright piano exists alongside a wobbly bass that creeps up from the spaces within the musical text. Then arrives Blake’s voice, pure, stripped of pitch shifters and vocoders. It cracks and quavers with that natural sound Blake has already become known for. Droning, processed squeals pierce through and battle with Blake’s voice for control of the song. It’s an orchestral dirge, bipolar and out-of-control. And brilliant.

Nonetheless, Blake is capable of slipping up. He falters somewhat with “Fall Creek Boys Choir,” which was the teaser for the EP, streamed online. The idea of a Justin Vernon/James Blake collab was novel yet expected. I’ve been harping on the similarities between the two for a while: both formal experimenters, both exemplars of the postmodern singer-songwriter (blending the maximal and minimal), and both extraordinarily talented. For all the anticipation, “Fall Creek Boys Choir” is a bit flat. Vernon takes over Blake’s vocal iterations, the repeating patterns of lyrics that, over time, spiral toward a desired goal decidedly different than their origin. Vernon’s soulful croon and bent vocals are featured here along with his knack for early-90’s balladry. The end result is a piece that seems rather forgetful, especially in the context of the EP. Sandwiched between “We Might Feel Unsound” and the Joni Mitchell cover, “Fall Creek Boys Choir” is too cyclical.

Standing at the center is “Not Long Now,” a multi-part mini-suite that is more Blake-as-composer and less Blake-as-songwriter. For a singular track on a late-2011 EP, “Not Long Now” is intriguingly complex and lengthy. Blake opens with slight electronic murmuring and his vocal layering, but then he yanks the parts away. The bass drops, and the piece becomes a jittery groove. Blake takes the last few seconds to slip in one last section, an afterthought maybe or perhaps an epilogue. It’s peculiar and bound to attract detesters. But it’s another point at which Blake reminds us that he can make sounds like no one else right now (the electronic feedback and sampled straw-in-cup noise is a saving grace for “Fall Creek”). He is able to make alien music that seems all too familiar. Pieces reconstructed from R&B and dubstep while maintaining an already distinct and bound-to-be-copied sound.

With all his abilities in check, it is still surprising to hear “A Case of You” and “Enough Thunder.” Listening to “A Case of You,” it’s hard to imagine this is the same man who gave us “The Wilhelm Scream.” We are in the presence of one of the most talented artists right now, one who can shake the fillings in teeth with a re-worked cover of “Limit to Your Love” and who can strip every layer away to showcase his natural vocal prowess and virtuosity at the piano.

This is an EP of James Blake the performer, the talented pianist and vocalist. The little British guy with the voice and classically trained skills. It can be daunting and even overwhelming attempting to keep up with Blake and his constant outpouring of releases, but it shows he is a relentless composer, incapable of standing still and being compartmentalized into genre.

-Grafton Tanner; November 7, 2011