Wholesale dismissal of dubstep, that velocity-driven electronic subgenre dominated by Skrillex-style bass drops and “wub-wub” instrumentation, is like throwing the baby out with both the bathwater and the hopelessly stupid, lowest common denominator jock jams. James Blake and Skrillex occupy the same musical territory in much the same way that John Coltrane and Kenny G are both jazz saxophonists. Blake’s second album, “Overgrown,” finds the 23-year-old continuing to write songs first and throw effects later.
At the forefront is Blake’s voice, an elastic instrument suggesting a soulful middle ground between Thom Yorke, Antony Hegarty and Bryan Ferry. He puts it to immediate good use on the opening title song, a moody piano-and-orchestra ballad in which depth charges and bursts of percussion are the seasoning, not the meal, and layers in multiple voices and haunting refrains on “I Am Sold” and the earworm ballad “Life Round Here.” And on “Take a Fall for Me,” Blake invites RZA into the mix for a magnetically attracted meeting of the minds, with Blake cutting and pasting himself around RZA’s verses about jealousy and romantic desperation.
Perhaps even more so than Blake’s 2011 debut, “Overgrown” suggests that dubstep might only be applied to Blake for lack of a better term, and that he is built of more solid stuff than the latest permutation of electronic dance music. It is as sonically successful as it is symbolically important when Brian Eno, that great manipulator of sound and synthesis, guests on the album’s booming centerpiece, “Digital Lion,” cutting up and processing Blake’s vocals and instruments. But Blake proves throughout “Overgrown” that technology is not the centerpiece of his work, but the means with which to make arresting music. After all, on the lovely ballad “DLM,” it’s a fair question whether the most memorable sound on the track is the multitracked choral vocal or the pedal thumping on Blake’s piano.
— George Lang