Thursday, October 6, 2011

After dubstep controversy, Blake steps lightly

James Blake at the Paradise Rock Club, Monday

You might not expect a precious London electronic music composer to be at the center of a music beef, but that’s where James Blake found himself last week, when an interview he gave to the Boston Phoenix decrying the “macho’’ “frat-boy’’ posturing of the American dubstep audience kicked up a controversy. At his sold-out performance at the Paradise Rock Club on Monday, he arrived as the British ambassador politicking for the gentler, more thoughtful potential of the genre.

Seated at a bank of keyboards, Blake teased out spare, heavily effected chords and key rolls that matched the oscillations of his uncanny vocals, something like Aaron Neville trapped inside a computer, on the new song “Tell Me Are You With Me.’’ A palpable hush fell over the crowd for the emotionally intimate performance that often had much more in common with the likes of piano-crooners like Feist, or even Joni Mitchell - both of whom Blake would cover - than the prevailing party culture.

Joined onstage by his band, utilizing a hybrid drum kit, guitar, and effects triggers, Blake’s sonic palate expanded. During “Unluck’’ they erected a cathedral of organ sounds, one slow, ascending chord after another, while a clatter of percussion click-clacked like hardened raindrops amid muted blasts of static.

On songs like “Lindisfarne 1’’ Blake’s vocals were looped and harmonized, folded over and into themselves, his melodies melting into quickened pools of mercury. Throughout “I Never Learnt to Share’’ the feedback loops were injected with trembling noise bursts that coalesced into the roar of an aircraft at liftoff. It threatened to turn into a club banger but demurred before a second passage arrived. With a banjo effect on the guitar, the song sounded almost rustic, a futuristic folk hymn.

A more traditional club track, “CMYK,’’ with its simmering hi-hats and bass throb, differentiated itself with a samba beat. Surprisingly, the Feist cover “Limit to Your Love’’ was the closest to stereotypical dubstep, with its echoing drums, piano, and bass wobble. Little wonder then that Blake seems disappointed by his boorish peers; there’s nothing of his subtlety on display in the clubs right now, or anywhere else for that matter.

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