Album Notes: James Blake, Steve Gunn, and the Cat Empire

Dispatches from the Highlands

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James Blake
Assume Form
On his fourth album, the London native is back at it with his usual nimble production and sublime voice. An impressive palette of minimalist yet explosive glitches, samples, and beats, Blake relies on his own piano as much as he borrows from hip-hop and various electronic sub-genres. All of this serves as the bedrock for his R&B-tinged croon, and a number of featured guest stars, most notably André 3000. Assume Form could almost be called “jubilant” by Blake’s mournful standards. The haunting, ghostly sound is still there, just turned down a notch.
   I’ve enjoyed James Blake for years, both for his production and his voice, but this new album took some time to win me over. There is nothing as instantly enthralling as “Retrograde” or as sparsely elegant as “The Wilhelm Scream,” leaving my initial opinion one of disappointment. Yet now every time I push play, I find the album endearing itself to me more and more. Assume Form reflects a different type of beauty than that of most of Blake’s previous work. It’s a happier, more romantic view from his world. It also stands as the finest album start-to-finish in his still budding but already accomplished career.

Steve Gunn
The Unseen In Between
I’ve noticed an interesting dichotomy when it comes to Steve Gunn’s The Unseen In Between. Half of the songs instantly captivated my attention, the music pulling my ear, starting with the opening trio of “New Moon,” “Vagabond,” and “Chance.” The other tunes, like track four, necessitated a more concerted effort, requiring multiple listens to absorb their beauty. But the effort is well worth it. Gunn’s 15th album (either solo or collaboratively) is a gently lilting, chill Americana affair. The well-crafted songs are driven by acoustic guitars, whether strummed or finger picked, resulting in a rich warmth that magnifies the quality songwriting and strong lyrics.

The Cat Empire
Stolen Diamonds

This one caught me by surprise as I didn’t realize they were prepping a new release, but what a nice winter treat: a new Cat Empire album! Upon first listen I kept thinking that Stolen Diamonds very much picks up where 2016’s Rising with the Sun left off. Then I checked their official website only to find bandleader and main songwriter Felix Riebl saying: 
   "The band wanted to create an album full of songs that translate directly onto an international festival stage. That’s really been the broad ambition of each album since Steal the Light. You could say that Steal the Light, Rising with the Sun, and Stolen Diamonds work as a trilogy."
   Hard to argue with that. Throw their three most recent records on a playlist, put it on shuffle, and you tell me which songs are from which album. Check out their upcoming tour dates--and if they are anywhere near you, do yourself a favor and go see them.

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