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all words: Phil Runco
all photos: Shauna Alexander

James Blake is enjoying a remarkably bizarre moment in time.

Sunday night at Rock and Roll Hotel marked the first stop of a two-week US tour that is beyond sold-out, from Philly to Minneapolis to LA.   The 22 year-old’s full-length debut is a critical darling being distributed in the States by a major label whose roster includes Jack Johnson and Amy Winehouse.  In fact, a trip to the Universal Republic’s website finds him rubbing shoulders with the likes of goddamn Enrique Iglesias.

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And he’s managed to accomplish this behind a record that is unapologetically odd.   Granted, it’s a frequently beautiful record, and not exactly Black Dice or Wolf Eyes challenging, but spare me the xx comparisons: no one is speed skating to James Blake anytime soon.  James Blake is an album of contradiction.  It’s warm and sterile; it lurches and skitters out and is utterly unafraid of silence; it’s approachable but not welcoming.  It is an album in exquisite taste but oblivious to “tastes.”

Yet here we were, a sold-out Sunday night show, and one that sold out in ten minutes at that.   The venue was slow to fill during Active Child’s opening set, despite Pat Grossi’s bizarro R&B – choirboy falsetto stretched over electronic-skewered synth-pop – being a nice compliment to Blake’s.

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Drawing primarily from the Curtis Lane EP, Active Child’s performance hasn’t changed much from its opening gigs last year, but it’s fleshed out now with a third member on drums.  (Curiously, said drummer plays a drum pad, and seeing as Active Child still relies on some programmed beats, it was hard to tell what exactly he was contributing.)

While Blake’s songs often hinge on reluctant build-and-release though, Grossi’s embrace full-blown melodrama from the get-go.  It can be a little much, but for as long as M83 is off the grid, “In Your Church at Night” can fill that bombastic void.

The crowd was left to stew following the swooning opener, and it would have to wait longer than expected as the crew worked out kinks in Blake’s set-up.  When Blake did emerge though – joined by Rob Andrews (guitar, sampler) and Ben Assister (percussion, drum machine) – an obedient hush fell over the Rock and Roll Hotel.

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It’s difficult to say what reasonable expectations for Blake’s performances were.   The distilled aesthetic and vocal showcases of James Blake are fresh in mind, but it was only last year he was making a name for himself on a series of EPs with glitchier and more schizophrenic soundscapes.

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In the end, Blake’s renditions fell somewhere in the middle, offering an interesting window into how his LP might have turned out if Blake had opted for a less refinement and more oomph.  The album’s biggest songs – “Wilhelm’s Scream”, “I Never Learnt to Share”, “Limit to Your Love” – were all stretched past seven minutes, and given throbbing back ends of trunk-rattling bass.  Blake appeared to take special glee in transforming his Feist cover from torch song to flat-out banger in a matter of seconds.

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Still, even when Blake did indulge in some cavernous crunch, it would be mistake to think it any less controlled than his quieter moments.  Blake’s music juggles too many variables – specifically the looping and manipulation of his vocals, and contributions from Andrews and Assister – to be anything less than precise.  Most songs began with Blake’s blue-eyed voice alone and vulnerable, only to be joined by a loop of his voice pitched differently or digitally perverted and spliced.  (Turns out “To Care (Like You)” doesn’t feature a guest female vocalist.) Eventually his cohorts were phased in, but economically to maximize impact: guitar flowed gently through “Lindesframe” and “Wilhelm’s Scream”; live drums added a crispness to “Limit To Your Love” and “To Care (Like You)”.

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Blake avoided the sample-based material of the CMYK EP, instead relying only on what the band could create on its own.  He did, however, offer up a hypnotic seven-minute take on the Klavierwerke EP’s ghostly title track, a wordless song marked by Blake’s anguished moans and a grainy dubstep shuffle.

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I’m genuinely curious to see how long Blake will be able to sustain this level of interest (to say nothing of productivity), but I’ll be pulling for him, if only because I would love to hear these songs on some monster speakers.

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