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James Blake channels Joni Mitchell in his latest album, Overgrown

3.5 out of 4 stars

James Blake
Universal Republic

Joni Mitchell is the favourite genius of James Blake. He will tell you that – not that he needs to. With his sublime rendering of the Canadian's A Case of You, the evidence of his affinity was in. The cover was part of Blake's Enough Thunder EP from 2011. (As was Fall Creek Boys Choir, the weird Auto-Tuned spiritual made in collaboration with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon.)

One hears Mitchell's influence on the gorgeous lead and title track of Blake's new album, the follow-up to his groundbreaking eponymous debut. It is muffled, murmured, head-tripping and softly giant – a very modern update of the soulful singer-songwriters of another era, Mitchell included. The lovely style of Lulu or Dusty Springfield is detected as well.

Blake is a fair-haired Londoner, a star to some for his unique and gentle ways with piano, pitch-shifting vocals and lap-top dub-pop atmospherics. His debut album was a stunner – something from a friendly galaxy well away – but perhaps a touch too avant garde for the mainstream. On this, his second album, the oddness is dialled back a bit – a concession, a conscious one maybe.

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The song Overgrown concerns permanence: "I don't want to be a star, but a stone on the shore, a lone doorframe in a war." Blake had spoken with Mitchell on the subject of lasting after a show of his at the Troubadour in Los Angeles; Mitchell, who wrote about frozen rivers that went on forever and a lover being in her blood like a holy wine.

Something that would provide Blake's career with some length would be an improvement in songwriting. After all, his best-known songs were written by others: Feist's Limit to Your Love and The Wilhelm Scream, a rewrite of Where to Turn, by Blake's own father, the musician James Litherland.

So we now have Life Around Here, a fluid piece of rainy-day R&B head-nod. DLM is a love ballad, done in a ghostly gospel manner. Retrograde, which moves sensitively and slowly to a clapped beat, arrives to a sudden synthed-out chorus.

Are these hits? No, not really. They are the expressions from an artistic soul, pure music from out of the body. Blake is in the rare category of musician – the Feists, the Bon Ivers, the Patrick Watsons, the Stevie Wonders, the D'Angelos, the Mitchells. They seem to take it all in and breathe it back out in selfless and helpless melody, rhythm and ambience.

It's all very liquid what these people do, with the songs – to perilously extend the metaphor – being their bottles. If Blake's taste is not for everyone, so be it. Me? I could drink a case of him, and still be standing and wanting more.



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  • Wolf
  • Tyler, The Creator
  • Odd Future Records
  • Three stars

He's been doling out offence since he first picked up the mic, but only now has Tyler, The Creator has made a truly scary record. The 21-year-old leader of hip-hop hooligans Odd Future adds fame to his existing issues, making cuts like Colossus – cataloging uncomfortable confessions from fans – a departure from his beta-male bird-flipping. The kid has realized he has responsibilities, even if only to his followers. There's a fine line between mischief and misanthropy, and Wolf is perched right on top of it. -Dave Morris


  • Escapology
  • Maylee Todd
  • Do Right
  • Three stars

"You know my baby's got it," Maylee Todd sings sultry and sassy, "I see my body rocks it." Rocking what you've got – words to live and dance by. Toronto's mischievous and jazzy extrovert gives us her sophomore album – a record which finds Todd newly finding dreamy uses for the harp. But then Pinball Number Count is something of an out-of-sight Sesame Street episode, and I Tried is a dramatic ballad, Jackson 5-style. "Everybody needs a mouth to mouth" is a gang-sung refrain of Hieroglyphics, and Todd is nothing if not a breath of fresh air. -Brad Wheeler


  • Parakeets with Parasols
  • Gabriel Minnikin
  • Independent
  • Three stars

Halifax's Gabriel Minnikin, formerly of the alt-country troupe the Guthries, makes rootsy, likable songs and then bigs them up a few sizes. Cold Day, for example, is shanty-like, but done in a swelling full-scale theatrical mode. There's a full orchestra on hand, complete with harmonica and pedal steel of course. The low-key Halifax Blues suggests a Keelor-Cockburn collaboration – which probably needs to happen, am I right? – but mostly the record is grand and ambitious, with Minnikin's moods and pitchy baritone keeping things grounded. Not for ear buds or desktop speakers, the album works with Scotch and he-man stereos. -Brad Wheeler


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  • English Electric
  • OMD
  • BMG
  • Three Stars

"The future was not supposed to be like this," remarks a sampled voice in The Future Will Be Silent, and yes, the 21st Century is quite different from what was imagined when these English synth-poppers dropped Enola Gay back in 1980. English Electric has fun playing with notions of failed futurism, from the arch, they-promised-us-jetpacks sature of Atomic Ranch to the darker, post-industrial musings of Our System. Written, performed and produced by just two of the original four, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, Dresden and Metroland nonetheless recapture the perky bounce of OMD's classic analog pop even as other tracks push the band toward the harder edge of contemporary synthesis. -J.D. Considine

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