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James Blake: The Man Machine

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 30, 2011 8:45PM

James Blake at Metro / Chicagoist (Kim Bellware)

For a lanky, shy-seeming young man from London, James Blake is awfully good at getting folks excited. His singles, EPs and this year's full-length James Blake debut have generated endless chatter -- or more specifically, praise -- among critics, while live in concert, he plays to a backdrop of whistles, screams and professions of love.

Last night at Metro, Blake could have hummed his way through the 90-minute set and still exited to the roar of a thrilled audience. Though we don't underestimate the impact of boyish good looks, floppy hair and a British accent, Blake is a bona-fide musician blessed with both a fine voice and novel approaches to electronic music.

Much has been made of Blake's unique and impressive vocals which at times reminded us of Prince. Blake's speaking voice sounds deep and even. singing, however, he stretches from a midrange typical of blue-eyed soul singers to at a high, trilling peak.

Singing wasn't the only varied part of his setup; Blake folded his vocal range in with his floor-rumbling bass and keys with just as much variety. On tracks like "Give Me My Month," Blake stuck with a clear, occasionally effects-assisted piano that showed off his chops as a singer. With "I Never Learnt to Share," Blake progressively wove his lilting singing into a melange of electronic effects until you couldn't distinguish whether Blake sounded like a robot or the robotic effects sounded like Blake. On "CMYK," Blake sampled Aaliyah and Kelis for a bionic, spooky number perfect for a dance break or a mental freakout.

The differences in the approach to each song might have clashed in less capable hands, but Blake orchestrated the contrasts to make a dynamic, interesting set. Blake inhabits both spaces with ease; it'd be just as easy to imagine him playing with nothing but a keyboard and a mic as it would a network of FX pedals and synthesizers.

Blake's timing with how he creates each layer of a song teeters on unnerving, but usually lands on the side of brilliance. With his slow, abstract progressions, Blake builds anticipation so much that it starts to test your patience, then lets it rip in the form of some hyper, bass-driven payoff.

A few of Blake's purely instrumental pieces felt like filler compared to the more engaging vocal-based numbers. Tracks like "Klavierwerke" stretched too long, perhaps evidence that Blake's singing (whether manipulated by effects or not) is what keeps his haunting electronica from sounding too alienating. Though the set occasionally wandered in places, Blake eventually brought everything back around, particularly on his closer with "Wilhelm Scream" and his earlier cover of Feist's "Limit To Your Love."

Had Blake trimmed a few songs, it might have made for a tighter set. But, when you have a performer as interesting as Blake, you'll stick around for the very last note--and just like his slowly escalating songs, the tested patience was met with a fantastic finale.