Category: Reviews

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The Streets – Computers and Blues

(Atlantic Records, February 7th)

Mike Skinner is a man with a point to prove. Computers and Blues represents Skinner’s sixth try at stardom, and it really is a melange of dance-grunge, techno-soul and indie pop. The music itself is nothing to be sniffed at, but it’s a shame that Skinner’s voice sounds so distinctly ordinary against the rich backdrop. Skinner sounds anything but confident on any of the tracks, his unsure vocals matching his quite ordinary lyrics (“If you’re going through hell” repeats in “Going Through Hell” as if he had a momentary mental blank while penning it).

Skinner originally planned this as the last The Streets album, and it’s a shame that he didn’t produce a masterpiece to finish off a very decent spoken-word career. Computers and Blues meanders through around 40 minutes without ever causing anything more than momentary surprise at something breaking the monotony. Mind-numbing lyrics (“Puzzled by people” involves the depressingly simplistic “I’m two down you’re one across the room”) and a very distinct aversion to any sort of dynamic variation lead this album to become more effective as elevator music than something to hit the radio.

This isn’t to say it’s all bad, though. “Blip On A Screen” indulges in fanciful techno-RnB with orchestral licks and is big enough for a stadium but at the same time small enough for an intimate setting. “We Can Never Be Friends” makes use of warped acoustic guitar to a laid-back funk beat, and the chorus is an arm-waving crowd hit, before a tasteful guitar solo with lightly peppered percussion.

However, these are the exceptions. By and large, Computers and Blues tries too hard to be an epic hit along the lines of The Joshua Tree or Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, with a spoken-word twist. Skinner would have been better sticking to the style that saw Original Pirate Material widely acclaimed and declared Entertainment Weekly’s album of the year in 2003. Here, any attempt at variation by Skinner is either too laboured to spontaneously demonstrate his true creativity or too blase to reveal any of the depth that is undoubtedly there.

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Linkin Park – A Thousand Suns

(Warner Bros, September 14th)

J. Robert Oppenheimer described the atomic bomb using the Hindu Sanskrit scripture Bhagavad-Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” Linkin Park use similar concepts of human fear, nuclear warfare and technology to bring about an apocalyptic edge to this album. Contemporary concerns about the world are heightened in the moodiness and reflection that comes across throughout A Thousand Suns.

With A Thousand Suns, in the works from 2008, Mike Shinoda and Rick Rubin have continued their work of 2007’s Minutes to Midnight. The album was written by Linkin Park, who found many topics to write on within the context of the album.

In 2009 while revealing information about the album Shinoda said that they had intended to create an album that sounded different to all of their other work. This holds true to some of the tracks such as ‘When They Come For me,’ ‘Robot Boy,’ and ‘Fallout’; creating a new level of attention. However the frontrunner tracks, ‘The Catalyst’ and ‘Wretches And Kings’, of the album fail to establish a definitive sound separate from the band’s earlier popular works. Overall the tracks ‘Burning In The Skies’ and ‘Waiting For The End’ highlight the reflection and questioning radiance of the album.

Drummer Bob Bourdon confessed to their struggle for perfection and that with such an intense topic they had to evolve as musicians, as they wrote a lot but went through a lot of refining to arrive at a product that kept them interested and enjoying the process. “We’ve been used to making a certain type of music and using sounds to accomplish that. So to break out of that and push ourselves to grow is definitely challenging.”

A Thousand Suns
replaces aggression with contemplation. Transmissions from screaming vocals to the more refined rock tones to rap to harsh speech keep the track refreshing and the listener engaged. Striving for a style more natural than technical, Linkin Park still manage to make references to Public Enemy in ‘Wretches And Kings’ and feature samples of speech by political figures such as Martin Luther King Jr, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Mario Savio.

The tracks echo popular qualms about wars and technology. The sound patterning though the album ranges from that of an enjoyable to a tolerable variety. The messages would only apply to those who are like-minded. Similar to most of Linkin Park music, this album would be a hit among suitable audiences.

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…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Tao Of The Dead

(Richter Scale, February 11th)

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail Of Dead have released their 7th studio album, Tao Of The Dead, in an explosion of progressive/ psychedelic/ post-hardcore scattered with spacey synth and electronica.

Written in an impressive ten days, Tao Of The Dead is intended to be listened in two parts; The first, written in D tuning, contains eleven tracks ranging from the minimalistic/ electronic approach of “The Spiral Jetty”, to the guitar driven “Summer of All Dead Souls”. The second, written in F and broken up into 5 movements, is a 16 minute rollercoaster of tempo and time changes complete with all the genre defying aspects evident throughout Tao Of The Dead.

“Pure Radio Cosplay” sets the pace for the album, with its driving beat and psychedelic guitar work abruptly bursting into heavy chords, pounding drums and a vocal delivery to match. The track builds up to a space rock jam, with the airy synth leading into the explosive punk influenced “Summer of All Dead Souls.” A somewhat lighter aspect of Tao Of The Dead is visited in “The Wasteland”, rising and falling from playful guitar and synth melodies with smooth bass embellishments, to grinding guitars and crashing cymbals.

After being brought down by “The Spiral Jetty”, we are reawakened through the steady 6/8 rhythm of “Weight of the Sun…” building through instrumental layering and unleashing a post hardcore assault of distorted chords, in-your-face drums and a chorus that will have you belting “you will pay” at the top of your lungs with your fist clenched high above your head.

By “Strange News From Another Planet”, the second part of the album, the grinding chords and ethereal synth and guitar melodies are becoming a little tiresome and repetitive, however there are still some welcome surprises arising from the haze. “Had a strange epiphany/As I woke out of a dream”, begins the fourth movement “Strange Epiphany”, which shifts comfortably from 4/4 to 7/4 and back again, and displays rolling drums and punchy chants. However the 16 minute culmination becomes slightly enduring, bringing to question the combination of the final five tracks.

These days the word ‘epic’ seems to be used grossly out of context so much it can make you cringe. However ‘epic’ sums up Tao Of The Dead brilliantly. …Trail of Dead have created an album which flows so effortlessly it sweeps you up and takes you along for the journey. You can listen to Tao Of The Dead as twelve separate tracks or two complete works, just make sure you listen to it.

 

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Burial, Four Tet and Thom Yorke – Ego / Mirror

In an alignment of fates that will have electronic music connoisseurs everywhere wetting their pants with glee, the boys behind Burial and Four Tet have teamed up with Thom Yorke to release the result of their collaborative efforts together, ‘Ego / Mirror’.

It’s been a colourful year for Thom Yorke, already – Radiohead dropped their latest effort ‘The King of Limbs’ mere weeks ago, to the surprise and delight of fans everywhere – a delicately-wrought album that takes Radiohead in yet another new, exciting direction (see Bill’s review here). Yorke also made a small splash online after footage of him doing a surprise DJ set at Low End Theory in Los Angeles emerged on the internet – you can watch Yorke get his mix on with some surprisingly dirty, deep cuts here.

Ego / Mirror follows in a similar direction to Yorke’s most recent work, with Burial and Four Tet’s washed-out, dreamy electronics complementing Yorke’s writing perfectly. The A-side Ego was premiered on dubstep pirate radio station Rinse FM, during a session with Four Tet and Floating Points. Copies of the 12″ on Four Tet’s label Text have been limited to a release of 300 and have, tragically, already sold out. Whether a release in digital format or otherwise is at this point unclear, but music fans everywhere are impatiently waiting for further word on the subject. Watch this space.

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The Chemical Brothers Live 09/03/11

Before headlining Future Music Festival, still riding the highs from the release of their 2010 big-beat/psychedelic effort ‘Further’, the Chemical Brothers were kind enough to grace Melbourne with a full-length sideshow at the Rod Laver Arena on the ninth of March, supported by Art vs Science, James Holroyd and Zane Lowe of BBC Radio One. I got there about an hour after doors opened and caught the tail-end of Art vs Science, who sounded pretty tight and had the crowd going.

Don’t even get me started on James Holroyd: a total dickhead dropping appallingly bad commerical electro and top-forty rubbish with inane MCing over the top. Didn’t have a working subwoofer, either. Awful, awful. Was vaguely concerned by the fact that the crowd seemed to genuinely be getting into it – Future Entertainment gigs always seem to pull the most obnoxious kind of crowds, but in any case… Zane Lowe played for about forty-five minutes, from memory – musically speaking, a complete breath of fresh air. Rolling basslines; heavy, relentless cuts of deep house and minimal. Moody, evolving and always surprising, but not overwhelmingly so: an excellent build-up for the main act of the night.

The Chemical Brothers started around nine-fifteen and literally did not stop their aural assault for a full two hours. Aural assault of says it all about their set, really: a nonstop, absolute riot with a crowd of bodies that couldn’t stop dancing madly for the whole set. They’re the kind of electronic act that really know how to get a crowd off. One of the main weaknesses of most dance music acts who play live is that their performances can seem really stale and hackneyed – they don’t seem like they’re putting in any effort, it’s just pushing start and stop in front of a laptop or two. Not these guys, though, and I think that’s one of the main drawcards of the Chemical Brothers that puts them up there with the best in live dance music – their ability to respond to the feel of a crowd and work off them was incredible, a total joy to be a part of.

Two straight hours of watching them mix it up, playing both the old and the new with seamless transitions between tracks – everything from Exit Planet Dust to their latest album got love. ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, ‘Leave Home’ and ‘Chemical Beats’ were highlights that had the old-school ravers rocking out hard, and hearing material fresh from Further was similarly incredible – ‘Horse Power’ had Rod Laver Arena completely letting loose to its roaring synthesisers and immense beats; the heady, unbridled joy of ‘Swoon’ had an ecstatic audience chanting “just remember to fall in love – there’s nothing else” as one, eyes closed and hands in the air.

‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’, ‘Star Guitar’, ‘Galvanise’, ‘Do It Again’ – hit after hit complemented perfectly by the stage setup they’ve developed for their Further tour, featuring video projections and clips from their music videos responding in time with the music, as well as an insane light show. Watching the lights slowly brighten as they made their presence on stage known, surrounded by a cage of lights – whoa.

A complete pleasure and an inspiration to watch – the brothers gonna work it out, indeed.

The Chemical Brothers, ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’

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The Strokes – Angles

The Strokes were a band of a time. A time when music was drowning in a sea of synthpop, eurotrash beats, overproduced RnB and boy bands. They were a breath of life into an otherwise stagnating music industry. Their (almost single-handed) revival of the entire ‘indie’ scene spawned hundreds of imitators and henceforth made NYC the capital of cool.

Here’s the problem though: The Strokes will never be as relevant as they were. Angles is proof of that.

The Strokes are one of those bands that polarise the music world. Understanding them is completely different to liking them. Sure, screaming out all the words to ‘New York City Cops’ is good fun, but many of their albums don’t have the same effect. The Strokes haven’t matched up to their 2001 debut Is This It and middling albums such as Room On Fire, and First Impressions of Earth haven’t lived up to expectations. It’s no surprise that we’ve hyped up another Strokes album and been (shock horror) disappointed by it. It’s far from unlistenable, but it’s not what’s been promised.

‘Machu Picchu’, the album opener and standout track, is a successful combination of the danceable angular guitar rock and the slightly-but-not-really lo-fi garage sound that The Strokes have been working with for the past decade. First single ‘Under Cover Of Darkness’ isn’t quite as solid as the opener, but that Albert Hammond Jr. guitar solo muscles the song up into a catchy single. From there, the album starts to just blend together.

This article was nearly going to be a track-by-track review where each song got the same description: ‘This track sounds exactly like the Strokes, Julian Casablancas is whining about something he really should’ve grown out of, Albert Hammond Jr. is being awesome and Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti’s solid rhythm section provides a good, but not really memorable track.’ It seems like cheap journalism, but when each track has a slight distinction to alter it from the previous one, it’s fair journalism. ‘Two Kinds Of Happiness’, ‘Games’ and ‘Life Is Simple In The Moonlight’ have cliched 80’s synths. ‘Call Me Back’ is a slower track where Julian Casablancas doesn’t sound like he’s e-mailing it in. ‘Gratisfaction’ has blatant 60’s influences.

A band that recently dropped their 4th album, Interpol, came out of NYC at roughly the same time and have followed the same career trajectory as The Strokes. They’ve released album after album of okay songs, but unlike The Strokes, they’ve made a conscious effort to at least try to change their style from Post-Punk to a more atmospheric rock. The Strokes have stagnated.

The NYC lo-fi/garage/post-punk era has passed. May The Strokes (and Interpol), rest in peace. May the next counter-cultural bands to follow in their footsteps to revitalise the music industry learn from their mistakes.

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Lupe Fiasco – Lasers

Lasers is Lupe Fiasco’s third attempt at an album in the last four years. He postponed both LupE.N.D and The Great American Rap Album to make Lasers. While his new album does have a few strong moments, at points you wonder whether it would have been better to release one of the others.

There are a number of well-balanced tracks on Lasers, but its producers smother half of the album. Too many guest vocalists providing corny or sugar-sweet also bring the album down.

‘I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now’ and ‘Beautiful Lasers’ are autotuned into submission, which is unfortunate because these tracks see Lupe rapping as well as he ever has. ‘All Black Everything’ is busily produced, but not overcrowded. It also sees Lupe reassert his strong views on racism in America; “We just close our eyes until it’s all black, everything.”

There are moments in Lasers where the heavy production compliments Lupe’s vocals. In the first single ‘The Show Goes On’, producer Kane Beatz works Modest Mouse’s ‘Float On’ into a clever hook. ‘Words I Never Said’ is another standout track. Alex da Kid’s low and rocking glitch-hop provides a foundation for more of Lupe’s politically charged lyrics, arguing that “the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit, just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets”.

A few piano-grooves are scattered throughout the album (‘Til I Get There’, ‘Coming Up’ and ‘Never Forget You’), providing some of the highlights. This lighter production much better suits Lupe’s style of rapping.

Lupe is still a talented lyricist and rapper, it’s just a shame that Lasers has been marred by several poor production choices and unnecessary choruses. Open-minded fans of Lupe Fiasco’s two previous albums will be able to overlook some of these obvious flaws and find a few excellent tracks in an otherwise passable album.

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Wye Oak – Civilian

Wye Oak’s third album has been repeatedly described as ‘subtle’. It’s difficult to say whether Civilian is ‘good’ subtle, or just plain boring. Most of the songs lead the listener through airy soundscapes, but they never really arrive anywhere different.

That being said, the Baltimore indie-folk duo find some redemption halfway through the album, where there are a couple of truly brilliant songs. With its stunning, rolling verses punctuated by powerful and gripping breakdowns, ‘Dogs Eyes’ could be one of the best songs of the year if commercial radio picks it up. The title track ‘Civilian’ sees Jenn Wasner’s delicate vocals float above a rolling off-beat until the lightly fuzzy guitar tone reaches a steep wall of noise.

Unfortunately, apart from these two stellar tracks, there are no others which are memorable for any reason. Wasner seems proud that only one of her songs has a chorus, but the album could benefit from some more structure. For subtle folk-rock to be any good, there need to be well composed melodies hiding underneath, which this album lacks. With the exception of ‘Two Small Deaths’, the vocal melodies are rarely outstanding.

There are opportunities for the songs to really explode into something complex and beautiful, but they are rarely taken. ‘Fish’ and ‘Two Small Deaths’ are a little too shy to break out confidently. ‘Hot As Day’ makes an attempt at this, but without the success of ‘Dogs Eyes’.

Subtlety is often a trait some artists aspire to. Bon Iver, Nick Drake and others have it to thank for their success. But there is a fine line where that subtlety drifts into obscurity and sameness, and Civilian falls just on the wrong side of that line.

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Oh Mercy – Great Barrier Grief

Alexander Gow has been left as the sole creative force behind Melbourne’s Oh Mercy, releasing Great Barrier Grief under major label EMI. Such changes have evidently affected Oh Mercy’s sound, and it seems that former member Thomas Savage has taken the bands edge along with him.

Great Barrier Grief is a sweet blend of acoustic pop, laden with soft airy vocals delivering tales of love and longing via Gow’s honest songwriting. Upon first listen the album presents itself as a wash of acoustic driven pop rock, the tracks seemingly molding together, and by the fifth or sixth listen not a whole lot has changed.

Opening track ‘Stay, Please Stay’ is an obvious single choice and arguably highlight of the album. Its steady beat compliments Gow’s breezy vocals and you’ll be tapping your feet and singing along in no time. The track sees the introduction of the Marimba, adding a little flavor to the somewhat stripped back instrumental arrangement.

‘Stay, Please Stay’ is comfortably followed by ‘Keith St’, displaying similarities in structure and instrumentation. The track opens nicely, bouncing along with a steady bass line and once again will have your foot tapping through the verse. However come chorus time the song progresses little, as we are seemingly pushed through a lazy vocal melody by the incessant bass line. The track showed great potential in the early stages, but its lack of development is its downfall; a precursor to the rest of the album really.

Elements of 2009’s debut LP Privileged Woes are positively revisited in ‘Let Me Go’ and perhaps vaguely in ‘Blue Lagoon’however Great Barrier Grief lacks the colour and vibrancy of Oh Mercy’s debut, presenting itself as a somewhat lazy album in comparison.

‘Doldrums’ suitably closes the album, with Gow’s vocals dreamily caressing the soft 6/8 guitar accompaniment and resonating piano chords. Its minimalistic and sombre approach providing a welcome relief from the acoustic pop that dominates the album, concluding Great Barrier Grief on a positive note.

Great Barrier Grief is too sweet and safe an album, washing over you unnoticed in a wave of unchallenging acoustic pop. A good album at best.

 

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Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

‘Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying’ sings Thom Yorke on Radiohead’s eight album The King of Limbs, an honest statement of where the band are right now. Since the release of their 2003 album ‘Hail to the Thief’ and the end of their commitments to EMI, the quintessential Oxford five-piece have been doing things their own unique way. On Valentines’ Day, the band created media frenzy when they casually announced they were going to drop their latest effort on the 19th Feb. Now that the hype around the release has died down, the question must be asked, “Is it any good?”

The familiar shimmer of synths of Radiohead open the album with ‘Bloom’, a track which exemplifies Phil Selway’s trademark percussive off-beat drumming. Past ‘Bloom’, it sounds like Selway went out of town for the weekend and the band recorded half an album without him. ‘Morning Mr. Magpie’ and ‘Little By Little’ sound like Thom Yorke’s solo efforts, also introducing guitars to the album into the mix. ‘Feral’ is Radiohead at their experimental best, with it’s unintelligible vocals and bizarre sonics, it won’t appeal to everyone, however, it does create a sonic palette cleanser for the rest of the album.

The lead-off single, ‘Lotus Flower’ (probably because it’s the only song on the album with a chorus that isn’t a ballad), is a fine example of where Radiohead lie right now. It’s a combination of Colin Greenwood’s slinky bassline, Phil Selway’s eclectic drum patterns, Thom Yorke’s crooning falsetto about love (‘Take the lotus flowers into my room/slowly we unfold’) and Jonny Greenwood’s minimalist guitar patterns combined with the electronica beeping influences from their previous albums to create a natural sound, much happier than their landmark albums OK Computer and Kid A.

Then the album transitions into the traditional Radiohead melancholy that we know and love. ‘Codex’ and ‘Give Up The Ghost’ are achingly beautiful, the band allowing their instruments to shine through a heavy reverb for a naturalistic sound, stripping it back to vocals and acoustic guitars and piano, creating such sweet sorrow in the style they have trademarked over the last 12 years. ‘Separator’ is a glorious finisher, echoing traces of the glowing warm balladry that Coldplay only wish they could create.

The King of Limbs is one of Radiohead’s most polarizing albums amongst fans. Some say it’s the best, some say it’s average, some say it’s too dense, some say it’s not dense enough. Whether or not there is a disc two coming (There’s a large conspiracy theory regarding this), this is a true grower of an album, one that will reward time invested tenfold. Go with the hype, this is one of the best albums you’ll hear this year and it stands well amongst one of the best back catalogs of all time. In the words of Fox news, “It’s truly the great post-ambient-dubstep-trance-soul record we’ve been waiting for.”

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Malachai – Return To The Ugly Side

Following up their hugely acclaimed 2009 debut Ugly Side Of Love, Malachai didn’t exactly make it easy for themselves by naming their latest album as a sequel. Fortunately for the Bristol duo (and their fans), they’ve held up the standard with their sophomore release Return To The Ugly Side.

The gloriously schizophrenic album is a competition between two very different styles of songwriting. Half of the album is 60’s acid rock, while the other is progressive industrial. The transition between the two styles is practically seamless, drifting in and out of mood changes with ease.

The album peaks early, with the dirty, grinding ‘Mid Antarctica (Wearin’ Sandals)’ and Katy Wainwright’s guest vocals on ‘Rainbows’. That’s not to say it isn’t worth listening through to find the remaining moments of brilliance later on. ‘My Ambulance’, with it’s busy and rolling drums, is reminiscent of early Cream. ‘Let ’em Fall’ stands out for it’s bellowing bass lines and layered top-end.

‘Monster’s haunting beginning alternates with a welcome reprise of fiercely industrial album opener. The orchestral string arrangements in these tracks are surprisingly unpretentious. They only get a bit too much during ‘Snake Eyes’; the arrangement could be better suited to a BBC costume drama.

One let down in the album is its length. Return To The Ugly Side is barely 35 minutes long, hardly long enough for a 14 track album. In fact, most songs end before the three minute mark. The album could have well benefited from a few more expansive tracks.

With Ugly Side Of Love, Malachai set themselves a high bar to clear. Their debut blended styles in ways that were fresh and innovative. It was always going to be difficult to match their debut album, but they have managed to put out a very solid follow-up release.

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James Blake – James Blake

Apparently, if you believe the media, dubstep has a saviour and electronic music has a new wunderkind. His name is James Blake. The Londoner released a couple of EPs in 2010 to widespread acclaim. Blake looked set to crossover to the mainstream when the album dropped. However, now that it’s here, the feeling is underwhelming.
Blake fortunately refused the obnoxious “wubwubwub” bass lines that are being generically tagged to his genre, opting for a more paired-back, minimalist approach. Whilst this works for certain tracks (Album highlights ‘Wilhelm Scream’ and the truly stunning Feist cover ‘Limit to your Love’), throughout the album, it tends to wear. The album starts to blend together (‘Lindesfarne I’ blends into ‘Lindesfarne II’ on purpose) and it starts to drain the listener. Tracks such as ‘Measurements’ and ‘I Mind’ would have been benefited by a slightly more full, richer production.

Production is not Blake’s only forte: his stunning croon is a constant star, shining throughout the album. ‘Unluck’ and ‘To Care (Like You)’ show true emotion on what can come across as bland tracks. Unfortunately, Blake has a tendency to apply a filter or effect to his vocals (often doing this with multi-tracked vocals) which is a shame. This is either because he’s too shy to demonstrate the full capacity of his voice or this is Blake precociously over-producing himself (this reviewer’s money is on the latter). Whatever it is, it doesn’t work.

The album truly does fall between the hype of the media and the blogosphere and the perennial ‘haters’. Blake certainly does have talent; anyone who listened to the ‘CMYK’ EP knows this. The album shows flashes of this brilliance and indicates there will be a future for him. However, the flashes of brilliance are drowned in a sea of tedium and filler; led by Blake’s ability to sound over-produced AND under-produced at the same time. It’s like the art-school kid who takes 82 photos of a pair of shoes for his assignment, it’s cool and arty, but he’s really just a hipster with an SLR.

James Blake isn’t the messiah dubstep is looking for. That’s Mount Kimbie.
Blake’ll give them a run for their money, though. Just you watch.