Cameron Blake‘s previous album Alone on the World Stagewas aptly titled: the music was mostly Blake’s voice accompanied by a single instrument, while the lyrics were often internally-focused. Fear Notis Blake at the opposite end of the spectrum: a crew of almost fifty musicians rushes from Tiananmen Square to Jerusalem to Baltimore to rural farm country to send the titular message to all of humanity. It is an album of unprecedented scope for Blake. The risk pays off in spades, as this is Blake’s most distinctive, accomplished work to date.
Blake’s voice remains front and center through it all. His low, drama-laden voice is a singular one that I can pick out instantly wherever I hear it. Blake’s vocal performances are the type that’ll grow on you; his tone is often-brash, he pairs a love of unexpected chord changes with unexpected vocal melodies, and he is unafraid to roar. Those who love atypical vocal presentations like those of Frightened Rabbit, Damien Rice, The Walkmen/Hamilton Leithauser and others will find much to love in Blake’s voice.
One of the big transformations in this record is Blake’s comfort level with the vocal lines he writes. He’s never been afraid to go for a soaring line, but here he is clearly in the zone. Between the rock-solid pop lines of “The Only Diamond,” the thrilling theatrics of “Old Red Barn,” the powerful emotion in “Tiananmen Square,” and the subtle inflections in the delivery of “Philip Seymour Hoffman,” Blake shows that he can confidently use his voice in a wide array of situations.
It’s good that his voice is versatile, because this album is a whirlwind of moods. “Sandtown” is a ten-car pileup of thrashing drums, skronking jazz horns, and vocal howls that seems to accurately describe the chaos of a Baltimore police raid. On the other end of the spectrum, the title track opener is about as delicate as the album gets, with an angelic choral backdrop and cello supporting Blake’s voice and piano. “Queen Bee” is a train-whistle folk-rock rave-up, while “Old Red Barn” is a jubilant dixieland track. Several of the tracks slot into his core sound of dramatic singer/songwriter tracks with folk influences (“Tiananmen Square,” “Wailing Wall,” “Monterey Bay”), but the diversity here is huge.
And yet, as much as “Queen Bee,” “The Only Diamond,” and “Old Red Barn” are a blast, it’s “Tiananmen Square” that is the standout here. The hugely emotive song is based on fingerpicked acoustic guitar, filled out with trebly piano keys, noodly lead guitar, solemn cello, reverent vocal melismas, and thoughtful drums.
Blake’s voice swings from calm to booming in the huge conclusion to the song, as the strings ratchet up and the drums push hard. The reason for the drama is the story of Tank Man, who defied Chinese tanks in 1989. Blake draws the listener into the story, then poses and answers a central question to the listener: “Was I born for this? / I was born for this.” The global scope of the incident and the personal nature of the questions in light of that important event are expertly juxtaposed. This tension between the lofty and the minor is balanced in the lyrics throughout the record.
Cameron Blake’s Fear Not is an intense experience of great scope and depth. It is an album that is in turns wrenching and fun. Its impact is in clear relationship to its scope: there’s a lot to hear here, and a lot to think about once you’ve heard it. If you’re into adventurous work from a thoughtful writer, Fear Not should be on your must-hear list for the year. Highly recommended.
Instead of writing new blurbs for each of these albums, I’m going to let the reviews stand as my comments about each of them except the album of the year. Since I had so many EPs on my EPs of the year list, there are less than my standard 20 albums of the year this year.
Album of the Year: Worn Out Skin – Annabelle’s Curse. (Review) This album came out of nowhere and established itself as a standard component of my listening life. It fits on the shelf right next to Josh Ritter and The Barr Brothers in terms of maturity of songwriting, lyrical depth, beauty, and overall engagement. Each of the songs here have their own charms, which is rare for an album: this one will keep you interested the whole way through. It’s a complete album in every sense of the word, and so it was the easy choice for album of the year.
Writing a whole album for single instrument and voice is a deceptively difficult task. No orchestration, no ornamentation, nothing but the melody, the rhythm, and whatever counterpoint you can get your fingers (or your looper) to do; what could go wrong?
Well, lots. I’ve heard a bunch of albums that consist of the same three songs over and over. I’ve discovered how important a backing band is to some musicians. I’ve heard a lot of grating flaws that were charming in a previous context. All this makes me appreciate even half-decent attempts at true solo records that much more. Cameron Blake‘s Alone on the World Stage is that rare album which showcases diverse songwriting skills and loads of memorable melodies within a very constricted medium. Alone impressivelymakes guitar and voice seem like an endless, expansive orchard with good songs ripe for the picking.
It’s not just that the songs are all there; they all sound so easy. The rolling fingerpicking of lead single “North Dakota Oil” seems to effortlessly buoy Blake’s baritone musings about the latest American oil rush. The insistent strumming that supports tales of hard-luck life in “Detroit” sounds no less assured. The pensive sway of “The Fisherman,” the bouncy “Piccadilly Circus,” and the precise-yet-gentle arpeggios of “Ultrasound” all show other facets of the diamond. “Fragile Glory” closes the record not by rehashing the sonic content, but by summing it up beautifully in a tender, expressive performance. Blake didn’t phone in a single song here: deft, purposeful work went into each of these twelve tracks. The result is an album that showcases his vast instrumental songwriting abilities without getting repetitive.
His lyrical songwriting is as adroit as the guitar work. Despite the implied political ends of the title, the album covers a wide range of topics. “Welfare Street” follows up on the promise of some politics, but primarily by focusing on the plight of the people involved in the situation–“Detroit” can be read in the same way. “Fragile Glory” expands the widescreen lens even more, taking a look at the whole human condition (“Hallelujah! We are human.”). On the other end of the spectrum, “Ultrasound” is a very personal song about becoming a father. But even if the scope is turned outward or inward, these are songs that are generous, even affectionate, toward their subjects. Instead of taking a calculated, sneering, ironic stance that can come out in pictures of people in culture, there’s a kind undercurrent to the lyrics that courses through the tunes almost as persistently as the bass note rhythms.
It’s peculiar that the most moving song on the album is one of two written for piano and voice: “Home Movie” is a soaring, passionate treatment of what the liner notes call “old silent film music” with new vocals and lyrics. Blake’s consistently evocative vocals are especially well done here, as his baritone lends the song a dynamism that fits with the deeply affecting lyrics. It’s the sort of song that doesn’t appear that often; everything comes together in that one performance to show the heart of the song and the songwriter. It’s the best of what an instrument and a voice can do; it’s the track that allures and calls so many people to try this sort of thing.
Cameron Blake’s Alone on the World Stage sees him standing out from the pack of singer/songwriters with powerful songwriting, passionate lyrics, and intimate performances. Blake sets the bar high for this year of albums.
Cameron Blake, who recently released an album, got inspired by Edward Snowden and wrote an artistic defense of privacy on the Internet called “The Ballad of Edward Snowden.” It’s not just protest; it’s also a really beautiful song.
MonaLisa Twins have studied the art of ’60s pop, and boy do they have it down. Throw in a crowd-sourced video, and you’ve got a cheery 2:28 to get you through those days.
Cheery post-rock acrobats Pan are releasing a new EP. Here’s a trailer for it. I’m stoked.
I can’t figure out if Sleigh Bells are destroying pop music or remaking it in their own image or both. Still, “Bitter Rivals” is pretty catchy! On the other hand, I don’t even know what I think about the video. Negative points for the Tyrann Mathieu jersey though.
Portland’s Wild Ones kept me company for the last legs of my Kickstarter journey (notably the handmaking mixtapes part). Their album Keep It Safe is a perfect summer album, so if you don’t have one yet, you can pick this one up. It’s mid-tempo indie-pop with some electro vibes: chill, but with enough head-bobbing propulsiveness that it keeps the wheels rolling in the car. When I turn it off, it feels like I’m turning off the mood in the room. It’s that pervasive in my mind.
Tracks like “Row” and “Golden Twin” let the female vocals dance breathily over a gently rolling keys-and-drums backbeat, augmenting every now and then with synths for flavor. The guitars flow in and out of the songs, never announcing their presence too hard or going unnoticed. It’s just beautifully executed indie-pop; the sort of album where every track works together and trying to pick singles is fruitless. You know, like how all the summer days run together? Jump on this.
In contrast, Cameron Blake‘s Without the Sound of Violence is surprisingly dark. The singer/songwriter has never shied away from heavy lyrical topics, but the music he couched those thoughts in was considerably buoyant (or at least hopeful). Without sees him match terse thoughts on social and political matters with similarly tense arrangements. Opener “Rugged Cross to Bear” sets the album in an ominous light, culminating in the mantra “hey, hey, hey, you better put your gun down/there ain’t nobody gonna hold you when the chips are down.” Choosing guitar as the lead instrument instead of his usual piano, Blake cultivates a heavy, tough feel to the tune. The sound continues directly into the title track, which includes a noise intended to mimic the sound of blades scraping as an interpretation of the lyrics. Even the fun, cheeky country hoedown “Cabin Fever” includes the love interest crying and being afraid. In short, this is not light summer reading.
So what is the end of all this heaviness? Blake uses the space to talk about hope, hopelessness, and steadfastness in the face of difficult times, whether that’s by singing from the perspective of Abraham traveling to sacrifice Isaac (“Abraham and Isaac”), channeling the perspective of a remorseful divorcee (the poignant, beautiful closer “Driftwood”), or getting Dylan-esque in lyrical structure for “Blood in Our Love.” That last track is my favorite of the album, as it ties the themes of the album to a piano-based sound that caused me to fall in love with Blake’s work in the first place. His performance is incredibly comfortable in “Blood in Our Love,” as he lets his voice loose to interpret the lyrics for him. It’s one of the only places that he gets unbridled in an album that’s marked by tight control over the arrangements; since the track doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the album musically (although it’s spot-on thematically), some may find it to be their least favorite. But I like it a lot.
Blake’s muse has taken him through some heavy places on Without the Sound of Violence, and he has come out with some memorable tunes for it. It’s definitely not dance music, but songs like “Driftwood” tap into deep, heavy emotions excellently. If you’d like to hear Josh Ritter do something darker, you may find your wish is granted in this album.
I’ve rarely been on-the-ball enough to get my year end lists done by December 31, but this year I made a concerted effort to have all my 2011 reviewing done early. As a result, I was able to put together not just a top 20 albums list, but a top 50 songs mixtape and a top 11 songs list. Here’s the mixtape, organized generally from fast’n’loud to slow’quiet. Hear all of the songs at their links, with one exception of a purchase link (#27). The other lists will come over the next few days.
Just like IC puts out its year-end best-of list in February, my half-year best-of doesn’t hit until August. This list includes the music I covered while at the Oklahoma Gazette.
If you would like to see this list visually, I’ve created an Independent Clauses Pinterest page that also includes the best artwork that’s crossed IC’s path in 2011 and a list of best books about pop music.
16. Chad Valley – Equatorial Ultravox. ’80s dance-pop revivalism that captures both the playful nonchalance and wistful romanticism of the first disposable music era.
If you haven’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, you probably shouldn’t start unless you have a lot of time to kill. The series is currently 13 books long, with a fourteenth (and final, thankfully) coming; worse than that, the books range from 600-1000 pages each. The word “timesink” doesn’t do the phenomenon enough justice.
But since I read with music going, it’s given me plenty of time to listen to music. And as enveloping as the tale of three taveren has been, it’s been even better with Cameron Blake‘s musical accompaniment.
Blake’s two most recent albums show an unique songwriter who has the ability to be a staying power in folk music for years to come, based on his lyrical skill and vocals.
Blake’s guitar and piano skills are formidable, but that’s not what makes him so great. His voice is a finely-tuned instrument recalling the best elements of John Darnielle, Colin Meloy and indie hero Ben Gibbard without losing its distinctiveness.
His latest studio album Hide and Go Seek is a low-key but focused affair that features his voice over spare songwriting. Gospel arrangements permeate his best works, as in the standard “I’ll Fly Away” and the excellent, jaunty original “Down to the River.” Both are anchored by piano: the former church-inspired, and the latter almost in an almost honky-tonk style that fits his smooth vocals perfectly.
His lyrics are also a high point, as he shows in “Moonshiner,” the title track and opening track “Every Hundred Miles.” The spacious arrangements give his lyrics room to breathe, and when floated by his excellent vocals, the songs become much more than the sum of their parts.
In that way, Blake functions like a mellower, more user-friendly version of The Mountain Goats; Blake takes on less heady themes in a much more palatable voice, but he gives the same attention to each word that Darnielle does. He tells stories with the same panache and flair, making the quoting of lines relatively unhelpful in showing the reasons why his lyrics are great.
The inflections that Blake employs on his higher vocal register recall those of Gibbard, although Blake’s range is much lower. The pleasing way that Meloy chops some of his vowels finds an analogue in Blake occasionally, as well.
Hide and Go Seek is the rare album that has layers to reward the serious listener. It’s entirely possible to listen and hear some lithe folky pop, but there is so much more here to get, lyrically and musically.
Blake develops another dimension of his sound in Cameron Blake with Strings: Live. Having already used tasteful string arrangements on his latest collection, this is not so much an exploration as an expansion of his sound. It also serves to introduce listeners to work from his previous album En Route. From that disc, “The Love Song Never Died” is the highlight of this album, as the complex song structure lends itself beautifully to the emotionally powerful crescendo that the strings afford it.
The depressing “Hudson Line” is made all the more poignant by the inclusion of strings, as well. Even more impressive than the arrangements is the success with which the recording is pulled off. Rarely do the strings get whiny, and Blake’s voice is steady as a rock. The only misstep is the 8-minute string piece “Hymn,” which is marked as “by Geoff Knorr.” It’s about 5 minutes too long and bears absolutely no connection to the rest of the work. Other than that, the album is a triumph.
Both albums show off Blake’s lyrical power and ease in his own skin. With his distinctive voice, memorable songwriting and that easy showman’s touch, Blake could go very far. I would love to see him support Josh Ritter or another songwriter of that caliber sometime soon. Highly recommended.
En Route, the second album from singer/songwriter Cameron Blake, is a refreshingly unique masterpiece. Although the Baltimore musician has his master’s in violin performance, he is clearly a man of many talents. With fantastic orchestrations from the young musician, the album will take you on a journey paved not only with violin, but beautiful vocals, piano, harmonica, cello, and acoustic guitar, to name a few. In the beginning of your listening experience, you may find yourself struggling to pin him down under one genre. The album is a smooth combination of acoustic, pop, blues, and largely folk sound. It would do him an injustice to not give him credit for his wide range of appeal. Let’s just label him as this: “talented.”
It’s hard to compare Blake to any one other artist, but fans of everyone from Dave Matthews to The Swell Season will surely enjoy this record. The album opens with “This is All,” a track that instantly makes you feel like you are listening to a rebellious poet in the bottom of a dark jazz club. Farther along on the record is “On the Way to Jordan,” which is more than suitable for a pub set in the heart of Dublin. A favorite is “Interlude,” a slower-paced song that would be fantastic on the soundtrack of an indie flick. The piano and delicate harmonies will chill you to the bone in the same way as the painfully beautiful songs written by Damien Rice.
Blake provides fascinating vocals through out the album, sometimes emanating a similar sound to Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie. There is a pleasant clarity in his vocals that allows the listener to enjoy his unique lyrics. In “Lonely Rooms” he writes, “I held her marigold smile-apple scent rain through slanting silver-lines/ I am the prince and the fool-survived by a breath, a thread, a single room.” Pure poetry.
If you decide to check out one independent artist this year, make sure it’s Cameron Blake. With excellent musicianship, thoughtful writing, and exceptional vocals, you won’t be disappointed.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.