Album of the month:
James Blake – Assume Form (4/5)
James Blake has always been difficult to pin down to a particular sound. His vocal and musical talents allow him to hold his own as a pure, old school singer-songwriter; his post-dupstep production skills see him mentioned with the likes of Jamie xx and Mount Kimbie; while he’s also a go-to guest for hip-hop superstars, like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, in need of a hit-making melody.
But these disparate interests have not always come together as a whole. At his live shows, he alternates between delicate solo piano covers of ’70s singer-songwriter classics and heavy, full electronic bangers accompanied by strobe lights that would be perfectly at home in any night club.
This conflict rages through his recorded music. After coming to public recognition through a series of bedroom produced EPs at the turn of the last decade, Blake has steadily built his career on combining classic singer-songwriter tunes with electronic flourishes. That he is able to successfully meld these two schizophrenic sides of his tastes is testament to his prodigious production talents.
What holds it all together is a deep-set melancholia that pervades every aspect of Blake’s output. (He has publicly talked about his struggles with mental health issues.) After the dark electronic tinged noodlings of his debut album and the doom and gloom of his sophomore release Overgrown, 2016’s The Colour In Anything, was billed as being the beginning of a new day for Blake. On reflection, it was an overblown and overlong effort that offered much of the same brooding darkness.
Assume Form hasn’t completely ripped up the template or changed any of the palette from which Blake draws upon. But while previously the various aspects of his musical output seemed ring-fenced into separate endeavours, this album has a far greater balance than ever before.
He ropes in some of the biggest names in RnB and hip-hop, Travis Scott, Moses Sumney and Andre 3000, to add their touches (Mile High); he delves into piano ballads with minimalist electronic drums beats (Don’t Miss It); and adds a touch of ’60s doo-wop pop harmonies (Can’t Believe the Way We Flow). It’s a very personal record, with much of the lyrics told from the first person perspective. (According to one website’s count the word “I” appears 136 times.)
The result is an eclectic mesh of influences and musical tastes that is brought together by Blake’s often-surprising and often thrilling production touches. After a career spent hopping around between various genres, it is perhaps fitting that Assume Form pulls so many threads together in such a satisfying way.
Other notable releases:
Deerhunter – Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? (3/5)
Over the past 15 years, Deerhunter have developed a reputation as one of the best and most interesting indie bands in America. While many of their contemporaries in the alternative rock scene over this time gravitated towards the OTT glam flourishes of ’80s rock, Deehunter instead mined the fuzzed out guitars and jam compositions that was the hallmark of early ’90s stalwarts such as Pavement and My Bloody Valentine.
Just as it seems that style of music is becoming more in vogue, Deerhunter have veered off towards the cleaner sounds they spent much of their career avoiding. Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is not exactly going to trouble the upper reaches of the ARIA charts, but it has smoothed over a lot of the edginess that made the band so compelling.
Band leader Bradford Cox’s presence remains as enigmatic as ever; the nostalgia drenched lyrics of the band’s earlier albums have been replaced with pondering observations about the state of the world (“They were in hills/They were in factories/They are in graves now,” Cox sings).
But while the production has veered off towards a more pop friendly terrain, the rest of the songs haven’t followed. Cox has always been a devotee of ’50s and ’60s-style songwriting tunes, infusing Deerhunter’s brash and ethereal tunes with a keen ear for a melody.
Its highpoints, such as Futurism and détournement, display the elements which have made the band so fascinating for so long. But while there is much to like about this album, unfortunately, there is not many tunes to love.
Weezer – Weezer (teal album) (1/5)
What is Weezer? Why is Weezer? More importantly, what the hell are Weezer doing recording a cover album for?
After finding substantial fames at the vanguard of the ’90s slack rocker wave, the band have somehow enjoyed a recent resurgence to relevancy. A steady succession of pretty decent records have helped, but the band’s shameless social media savvy presence has helped generate a new generation of fans.
Which all leads us to this rather unfortunate album.
Perhaps we have all blame the current meme obsession with Toto’s classic ’80s hit Africa. Weezer, for some unknown reason, decided to cover the tune last year with an accompanying video starring Weird Al Yankovic. It’s racked up some 25 million views and has fed into the band’s resurgence as a live act across American colleges.
Their fairly bland and straight take on Africa leads off this album and in its wake are a succession of equally uninteresting takes on predominantly ’80s hits, such as Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Take on Me and Billie Jean.
None of these are quite bad, yet none do anything to justify their existence. A single cover song can be a great tip of the hat to a notable influential act, bringing new fans to a perhaps forgotten act. But a whole album of forgettable and uninspiring takes on classics that neither pays homage nor offer an alternative and fresh take on a familiar tune.
In the past they would call this a cash grab. Now it just seems like a desperate dash for attention; something would should be beneath a band with such a rich back catalogue. Plus, the teal album colour may make people accidently mistake it for the band’s excellent debut album; also self-titled and colloquially known as the blue album.