Britain’s James Blake continues electronic journey on ‘Overgrown’

By Jake Krzeczowski (Originally Published for the Chicago Sun Times)

April 30, 2013 8:23PM

For experimental electronic musician-composer James Blake, the road less traveled is much more rewarding.

On Thursday, that road leads to the Metro, where the British artist’s intriguing combination of live instrumentation and digital production will be on display for a sold-out show.

While across the musical landscape there has been talk of the laptop replacing the guitar as an introductory instrument, the 24-year-old Blake, who took piano as a child, viewed the computer as a sort of means to an end.

“I wasn’t a very good student, always improvising and trying to make things up,” said Blake, who is known for his intricate, layered production. “But you can only improvise for so long before you have to bottle it up and make something concrete. So I tried to do that with a computer.”

Blake exploded on the scene in 2011 with his completely digital self-titled debut.

In two years a lot has changed for him, most notably his circumstances, and that bleeds into his work on his second studio album, “Overgrown,” released last month.

“For this album, I had a bit more money so I went out and bought some hardware to mess about with,” he said. “It’s been a lot more fun to produce like that — to have a few more things at your disposal.”

This latest project has elements of the first; Blake’s keyboards and vocals pacing experimental and eclectic digital production. New for Blake is the large-scale, layered sound achieved through playing the instruments (he sings and plays piano while operating the electronics)— before adding the computer’s touch.

Tracks like “Dim” and “Our Love Comes Back” feature this precise marriage of styles. Blake also enlisted the help of legendary producer RZA for “Take a Fall for Me,” which sounds like a sort of psychedelic Wu-Tang Clan record.

Although a smattering of well-recorded YouTube videos may attest otherwise, translating his unique sound to a live setting may pose a challenge as they have for similar, highly produced artists, such as Bon Iver.

It is a challenge that Blake, with his careful craftsmanship, has been able to overcome.

“James is one of those guys who is constantly redefining his sound and thus bringing about an entire new genre of music these days,” said Nate Seider, music director for Metro’s Smart Bar. “His sense of perfectionism really comes through in his productions and his performances alike with finely crafted, nuanced songs and a voice that sounds like no other.”

As someone always wanting to stay ahead of the curve, Blake is looking forward to his Chicago visit.

“I’ve always been fairly in tune with music from Chicago, because it is a place where great music seems to come from every now and again,” Blake said.

“There seems to be a hunger. It’s like the people of Chicago are hungry to do something regardless of what it is. It’s insatiable, and they need it. It’s something I can relate to.”

Jake Krzeczowski is a free-lance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @jakekrez

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