Dusted Reviews

James Blackshaw - The Cloud of Unknowing

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: James Blackshaw

Album: The Cloud of Unknowing

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Jun. 5, 2007

James Blackshaw kindly includes the tunings for four of the songs on his newest record, The Cloud of Unknowing, even though there’s no chance that the majority of his listeners will ever be able to play them. The 25-year-old, who dwells in the suburbs of London, is gifted with a rare dexterity on the 12-string guitar that’s garnered him comparisons to Glenn Jones, Steffen Basho-Junghans, Jack Rose, and Harris Newman – not to mention the rarefied clutch of Takoma pickers who preceded them. Still, the inclusion of tunings is emblematic of a quality in Blackshaw’s music that sets him apart from his peers. Staying largely clear of gnarled dissonances and droning atonalities, Blackshaw girds his instrumentals with uncommonly hopeful harmonies, imbuing them with a joy and generosity that’s communicated urgently.

The Cloud of Unknowing is Blackshaw’s sixth full-length, and first for Tompkins Square (the New York label will reissue three of Blackshaw’s early recordings later this summer). Comprised of five tracks, Cloud is palindromic in structure, book-ended by two lengthy and spiraling meditations and pinned at its center by the atypical, Eastern-tinged “Clouds Collapse.” Throughout the record, Blackshaw tends to settle quickly onto a single melodic idea before persistently exploring its contours, often altering his tempo with a palpable excitement. Tracks like “Running to the Ghost” are tonally divorced from the grit and twang of American folk. In fact, there’s a gossamer lift to Blackshaw’s patterns that calls to mind Jean Ritchie’s mountain dulcimer, particularly when subtle shades of glockenspiel and violin are added. In a recent Listed, Blackshaw raved about Jozef van Wissem’s interpretations of Renaissance lute pieces, and the guitarist’s affinity for stately European airs is evident here.

If much of The Cloud of Unknowing consists of wispy cirrus clusters, there are occasional moments when the dark cumulonimbus reigns. “Clouds Collapse” is by far the outlier here – the shortest track by half, its bedrock is a distant hiss of distortion with slight, sakura-blossom pluckings interposed over top. “The Mirror Speaks” begins as a swarm of strummed steel before misting into a melody that’s probably the least distinct one on the album. All is redeemed, however, by the fantastic 15-minute closer “Stained Glass Windows,” whose shimmering clusters of notes are offset by rich violin counterpoints.

Throughout The Cloud of Unknowing, Blackwell doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a deep listener, drawing on a diverse and often difficult assortment of musical influences. Soaring melodies are nevertheless Blackwell’s bread and butter, and he celebrates them with a warming joy.

By Nathan Hogan

Other Reviews of James Blackshaw


Waking Into Sleep

Litany of Echoes

The Glass Bead Game

All is Falling

Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death

Read More

View all articles by Nathan Hogan

Find out more about Tompkins Square

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.