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February 24, 2015

Limit Your Love - James Blake

James Blake CD CoverSometimes a track comes along that is so original that it's impossible not to listen to it in a loop. You'd think since everything has been done before, a couple times over, that we'd never get to hear something truly new in spirit and sound, but we can, and that's why it's fun to do what we do. I first heard Limit To your Love by James Blake at a secret new speaker preview meeting by the lovely people at Focal. I could not believe what I heard. To make sure it was not just the new speakers that ravished me I bought the record the minute I got home and it confirmed my first impression. James Blake is a badass (Please pardon the technical term).

Listen here:

There are so many smart things in this track. From the structure, to sound treatment, to the mix. It's a treasure trove of cool stuff. The track starts with, and is built upon, an upright piano which is a rare thing since the Beatles. There is no intro other than the riff chords, the lead vocal comes right in. It's a very classic sound. Just a piano and a voice, warm with pretty reverb and all. Nothing really special other than the vibe.

James Blake playingThe thing that keeps you listening and wondering where it's going is the expertly sparse nature of the verse. Only 4 phrases in the whole section, with lots and lots of space in between. It should be boring but it's not. He sings amazingly well and the sparse pacing creates tension. Then it suddenly morphs into a modern track. The classic sound turns into a modern sound with the first effect on 'your love your love your love'. Those cut up delays that feel like they are not repeating whatever was last played are awesome. They let you know that this is not your regular Postman. Something's up. It's a cllever warning on what's to come. You know you're in for something special. Notice how the time seems to stop. Is it in time? Is it rubato? Hard to say. Then it hits.

At that moment your speakers are praying for mercy. If you have a sub or passive radiator you will see the biggest excursion you have ever seen them do. What is going on? James Blake ran a saturated sine wave bass into a tremolo of sorts and mixed it super loud. It creates this wild dichotomy between the top and the bottom of the song. The top stays peaceful with the addition of a very sparse beat but the general tone is unchanged. It stays ethereal, the programmed drums have a nice glossy tail to them. It's totally zen while the bottom goes crazy with the bass. The tone of this section, the idea, the amazement it creates is pure genius. It's also a very ballsy (Being technical again) thing to do. I'm sure the mastering engineer fell off his chair and checked his settings when that part hit. The slight saturation gives the bass more grip and makes it truly forward and overwhelming. Just what he wanted I am sure.

What should we call this section? It's just 4 lines, very sparse, the title of the song is not in it. Is it a chorus? We are eons away from a radio chorus here. Is it a B section? Is the chorus the first thing we heard and this is something else? Let's see what happens next to figure it out.

After the first earth shaking bass section, we get back into something that feels like the first thing we heard. Let's call it second verse. Notice how the transition is un quantized and kinda loose between the bass and the verse piano. It gives the song that unshaven rough feel.

James Blake looking goodAlso notice that although it's the same piano riff, the same melody and the same lyrics, the verse feels different. Why? Because James Blake doubled the melodic rhythm on this verse. Gone is the sparseness of the first verse. This section happens twice as fast as its earlier version. Neat trick to accelerate the pace of the song. I never heard that trick before. Check it out. Play the first verse. Ok. Play the second verse. Wonderful isn't it? What a great idea. How did this happen? Did he write the song in the shape of the first verse and got bored enough to try and double the time on the second? Or did he write it in the shape of the second verse and then decided to stretch it for the first one? Did he need more time before his big BOOM moment maybe? What do you think?

Then the second 'B section' hits. Same principle, same crazy bass with the addition of a 16th note shaker pattern and a minimal chord support from the piano. Same lyrics, same melody but the shaker makes it feel totally elevated. When there is not much in an arrangement, the littlest details make a world of difference.

Notice how the vocal harmony on this chorus has different lyrics than the lead. Fantastic detail. Listen again.

Then the B section gets broken down completely. All drums disappear. He plays with delays, he plays with room sounds and odd cuts. He lets us hear the bass without tremolo on it. It's all very rough edged and tense to create a nice depression before hitting the B Section again.

This time a ride cymbal with an 8th note feel takes over and bring a soaring feel to it. The drum groove is the full fledged version of the different broken down versions we have been hearing since the beginning of the song. A neat use of the mute button.

Also notice the vocoder like effect doubling and harmonizing the lead vocal and fattening the section. You get to hear it more in the next section. There is no tremolo on the bass, but he plays a different bass line, reminiscent of old school dub tracks. The bass keeps going for the broken down chorus that comes next. Vocals, vocoder and bass. such a great timeless vibe. In the end the drums come back in and the song finishes with an empty instrumental jam based on the second . I love the electronic noise below the cymbal. So fresh. Hear it?

James Blake in a cool shot, at a gigSo in the end it's not really a Verse-Chorus. We can think of it as a more classic Jazz structure (A/B/A/B/C/AAA) or as a Verse-Refrain (with some twists) which is the song structure that evolved out of the classic Jazz structures for modern songs. In theory none of this should work, a bass so loud and weird that half of the speakers on the planet can't play it, asymmetrical everything, digital noise in lieu of cymbals, drums coming in and out four times in the song, no real chorus, same lyrics from section to section. None of this would pass the filter of a traditional production process with a full team and powers that be. By working on his own James Blake was able to create this gem and let us have it, uncensored. That's one of the reasons why it's fun to make music these days.

I strongly recommend you listen to the rest of the record called 'James Blake'. It's an amazing display of what can be done musically with modern tools without take the soul out of the art. All the carefully abandoned little cuts, ambient noises, and collages can be truly inspiring to get our head out of the drums/bass/guitar/synth routine.



Pianist and Resident Engineer of Fuseroom Recording Studio in Berlin, Hollywood's Musicians Institute Scholarship winner and Outstanding Student Award 2005, ee's worked in productions for Italian pop stars like Anna Oxa, Marco Masini and RAF, Stefano 'Cocco' Cantini and Riccardo Galardini, side by side with world-class musicians and mentors like Roger Burn and since 2013 is part of the team at Alberto has worked with David White, Niels Kurvin, Jenny Wu, Apple and Apple Music, Microsoft, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Virgin Airlines, Cane, Morgan Heritage, Riot Games, Dangerous Music, Focal, Universal Audio and more.