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James Blackshaw - All is Falling

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Artist: James Blackshaw

Album: All is Falling

Label: Young God

Review date: Aug. 19, 2010

Man, freak folk blew. A nation of college kids growing out their beards and faking like they were mystical lumberjacks or faerie maidens, tra-la-laing on acoustic guitars with too much reverb on their vocals. As a particularly garrulous taxi driver once mouthed off to me, en route to a show, "I like my rock to bands to sound like they’ve already been laid." Thankfully, most of the big names who cut their teeth in that mid-decade feeding frenzy are either entertainingly crashing and burning (Devendra, Coco Rosie) or outgrowing the niche (Newsom). About time.

The formidable guitarist James Blackshaw, who along with the tragically-late Jack Rose helped to stoke a John Fahey et al revival, always belonged to that second camp — his music was never Urban Outfitters folk to begin with, just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. But on All Is Falling, one especially hears the distance: the album is a single extended, eight-part piece, a web of guitar arpeggios, plaintive piano, strings and vocals. It’s an impressive feat, ambitious and personal, and could serve to announce Blackshaw’s arrival as a singular voice, unbound from any transitory scene. Too bad it’s pretty weak.

His press release cites his "pointillistic" compositional technique, which on this release has apparently been "stretched to the max." I don’t think so. Pointillism presumes a revelation that can only come with wide vision, only after one has spent much time listening to the details and zooming out. Webern was pointillistic. Roy Lichtenstein, it has been argued, was pointillistic in that his pairings disoriented up close and fused from afar. Blackshaw, unfortunately, merely plays a lot of notes fast. Instead of those giants on culture, his melodies cringingly evoke nothing greater than Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s maudlin quiet-before-the-storm breakdowns. He even throws in some tacky "jud jud" low notes to up the epic factor.

Predictably, the album opens quiet and gradually builds to a crescendo before ending with an ambient closer. We’ve been here many, many times before — it’s the go-to model for pretty much every lame jam session, as well as the musical equivalent to the narrative arc you may remember from that creative writing class you took in college. There are a few curveballs thrown in, some nods to Philip Glass’ vocal writing from Einstein On The Beach, as well as Indian classical music, but these barely count for anything, merely scratching those surfaces. The best of Glass’ work and Indian music nullify the predictable arc by working in ever-unfolding cycles, evoking eternity over the epic. Blackshaw’s melodic development, on the other hand, consists only of a series of motifs, each moody and windswept in pretty much the same way, none of which outstay their welcome or take you deeper. It’s a rollercoaster ride, with increasingly momentous climbs and drops that culminate in, of course, the Big One.

To his credit, that last big drop breaks form in an exciting way. Rather than the roaring power chords I was bracing myself for, Blackshaw employs overlapping string glissandos to create a dizzying texture that disorients more than it rages. It’s cool, although you would be forgiven for thinking of the "THX" sound effect. Still, it’s an interesting plunge, and infinitely more compelling than anything else on the record.

All Is Falling sounds mostly like the soundtrack to some teen drama, but for a moment it speaks to the adults in the audience. Blackshaw should skip the adolescent moodiness and dive deeper with this caliber of material. Here’s hoping for more.

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

Other Reviews of James Blackshaw


Waking Into Sleep

The Cloud of Unknowing

Litany of Echoes

The Glass Bead Game

Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death

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