Schnipper’s Slept On: James Blake and Jamie XX

May 18, 2010

Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated recent release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Jamie XX's Mix for Colette, with a some note about James Blake's inclusion on it. Download the mix and read Schnipper’s thoughts after the jump.

The James Blake song that Jamie XX uses on his mix for Colette doesn’t have any intelligible vocals. “Sparing the Horses,” from Blake’s “Air and Lack Thereof” 12-inch is a worried song, digital steam and sharp snare tumble along, buffeted with a gurgle that sounds like it could be saying “rolling out with,” though it could also be saying nothing. The song has as much to do with dance music as Guns and Roses playing “November Rain” with a full orchestra did with classical. Which is to say, well, some ineffable something.

That dance music would evolve to have music that came from it more in spirit than literal sound is surprising. Dubstep, the genre that James Blake can occasionally call himself a participant in, evolved from dub and garage, living somewhere in the pantheon of the many tentacled British dance music scene. As a general rule, the drums do not work steadily in 4/4 time, so often needed to tether a dancer to a rhythm. If you have been to see a DJ play dubstep, you know that a consistent, elegant movement is not to be expected on the dancefloor.

But none of this is news. Dubstep has been around some years now, covered in mainstream press and academia, more than a micro-genre, now an encompassing movement and something which the auto brand Scion has heavily latched on to help them sell cars. Colette, perhaps smelling the movement through the ash, commissioned Jamie to make them a mix. Though I don’t know, if any, tenets they decreed, what he delivered was a time capsule and they are lucky to have it to help sell expensive stuff.

There must be something that happens to men of a certain young age that they no longer want to be wholly aggressive. Much of what was sad about the movie American Hardcore was the terrible, terrible music many of the seminal bands went on to make after their brief brushes with punk infamy. Guitar solos and halfhearted glam were never a match for the power of their late teenage hardcore groups. How the same man could be in both Minor Threat and Junkyard is a sad mystery. Somehow, perhaps with an ambient lesson from their forefathers, the artists in this loose scene of despondent dubstep, have skipped both the punchy glee of dance music and hard snap of their dubstep contemporaries. Someone like Joker, a wildly talented artist of the same age and location as someone like James Blake or Jamie XX is known for his aggressive obviousness. If both stems of dubstep are in some way cinematic, Joker is new Star Wars in Dolby and Jamie is all French art house. He’s just figured out how to not make that boring. Though it would please my inner critic, I can’t say I’ve seen much by Claire Denis. Meanwhile, Jamie’s band, The XX, showed up in a Visa commercial during the winter Olympics. I saw that a lot of times.

The XX’s insane, cross-platform popularity is at a minimum, a signal that they’re not peddling slop. Their debut album is universally loved and deservedly so. It’s also an enormously new and bright, a step away from the linearity of rock music today and into the nexus of some tomorrow abyss. Their songs swim, never treading water, but never quite touching shore, the inverse of a rock song as much as a rock song. And the more you listen, the more you realize they sound like this particular brand of dubstep. Jamie’s mix for Colette illustrates that, using tracks, like Blake’s, that glide in and out of vocal use, the gentle placement of a human voice. The XX is just more popular because they write love songs. And who wants to see an entire show with no singer and no instruments?

James Blake has figured this out. In the last year plus that he’s emerged, he’s garnered most of his attention for his quick and crunchy dubstep songs, most of them brimful of elbows-out texture, not unsmooth, but never quite graceful. More recently, however, songs of his with him singing have begun to leak out. They sound like gay gospel from the future. Uncluttered from dubstep’s piles of clunk, they focus on Blake’s voice, which is especially fragilely velvet. “I Never Learnt to Share,” which has been on YouTube in various forms, is his most succinct number, which, in this version is missing its mostly acapella intro. My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/ And I don’t blame them is the song’s only lyric, repeated into infinity, coupled with the title, a sad pun. It’s a simple song, bolstered by a dull bass drum’s thump and strewn with randomly fluttering keys. They whir into a brief climax, more of a crash than a destination. It’s as much a sketch as a song, a crumbling deconstruction of the linear drum tracks institutionalized in dance music. In this sense, it’s a parallel to The XX’s approach to rock ’n’ roll, inverted and unpretentiously pretty.

Amidst all of the new faces on the Colette mix—Fantastic Mr. Fox, Silentone, Deadboy—Jamie begins with someone quite familiar to fans of dramatic British music: The Streets, whose “Streets’ Score” is one of the few narrative vocal songs on the mix. It’s a quiet song, made up essentially of a light string section with Mike Skinner, Streets’ principle, talking to himself. It’s an anti-tribute to his life as its become, endless, obsessive time tweaking drum machines, finessing samples, making songs. I gave up the fight for an easy life a long time ago when the last bird dumped me/ Buy me, get one studio free Skinner says. Now I don’t know much about Skinner's social life, but when he later says I was always too zoned out on the drum machine shit to worry about the day to day in the dosh pit, it seems like a fairly reasonable explanation for the dumpings. No one wants a boyfriend who pays more attention to his songs than to you. But all that microscopic attention to detail is fueling exploration. Artists’ heartbreaks, like always, are paying off in shining spades.

From The Collection:

Slept On
Schnipper’s Slept On: James Blake and Jamie XX