Review: James Blackshaw, “All is Falling”

Tepid and, at times, hesitant, James Blackshaw’s latest record for Young God is a disappointment. For much of All is Falling he and his band work diligently, trying to weave Blackshaw’s erudition into something captivating. Unfortunately, their success is all too infrequent and what results is an unsatisfying collection of stoic songs.

More than halfway through the album, during “Part 6,” James and violinist Fran Bury count out loud, inviting us to consider the song’s rhythm with them. “One, two, three, four, one-two-three-four-one” they count, their voices merging into a fugue of numbers until the sequence becomes confused: “One, two, three, four, one-two-six-three-four.” These are the only words spoken on the album, but they provide the best insight into All is Falling’s spirit and scope.

Drawing attention to a song’s technical elements so near the album’s climax tells me Blackshaw is interested in highlighting the technical aspects of his music, even to the exclusion of other features. Many of the album’s eight parts sound more like exercises than songs, and all of them are modestly paced tapestries that call attention to the way the instruments interact rather than to the musical result. On The Glass Bead Game, Blackshaw deftly smeared the line between cello and guitar, voice and flute, etc., until they disappeared into each other and created something newer and bigger, and on All is Falling he accomplishes this same effect, but to a greater degree and for a much longer duration. The result is more tedious than mesmerizing.

Many of the melodies on Falling are circular, and the dynamic variety prescribed for each instrument is such that they all imitate James’s 12-string playing on previous albums for Tompkins Square and Bo’Weavil. Melodies and harmonies came in waves on those records and, as a result, time was stretched in unexpected and pleasing ways. Blackshaw played the guitar like a man possessed then, showcasing his melodies while simultaneously challenging himself as an instrumentalist. On All is Falling none of the instruments speak up or take the lead, and none of the songs feature a melody strong enough to be memorable or affective.

Besides Fran Bury, who worked with James on both The Cloud of Unknowing and Litany of EchoesAll is Falling features multi-instrumentalist Charlotte Glasson and cellist Daniel Madav. Both musicians play exquisitely, but neither is allowed the freedom necessary to make unique or notable contributions. In fact, whatever peculiar talents or unique voices they might have are squelched by Blackshaw’s fixed tempos, flat dynamics, and even temperament. Consequently, little emotion finds its way to the album and any conceptual reward that might lie in waiting is left undiscovered for want of interest.

Both “Part 7” and “Part 8” help mix things up a little, but they offer too little, too late. The former alludes to a fiery, largely dormant spirit boiling beneath Blackshaw’s studious arrangements, but it fails to produce any smoke and segues unceremoniously into the unexpected and conspicuous “Part 8.” That song is a strange and completely out-of-place electric experiment that would fit perfectly on a collection like Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music; here it sounds like an expression of frustration. It is another cold and static song, but with a different voice. It does manage to catch my attention more than some of the preceding songs, though that could be due to its sticking out like a sore thumb.

I know James Blackshaw is a talented and imaginative composer; his previous albums have proved that sufficiently. What those albums have, and what All is Falling is missing, is a strong emotional context and a more unrestrained James Blackshaw at the helm. If James wants to highlight his talents as a player and composer more, he can do it without showing so much caution. I’d like to see him show off a little more, both technically and personally.

All is Falling is available from Young God
Sound samples can be found at Brainwashed.com

 

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