Wednesday, December 16, 2009

#17. James Blackshaw - Litany of Echoes (Tompkins Square, 2008)

Jack Rose died earlier this month. I hadn't thought much about him or his work since 2005's marvelous Kensington Blues came across my radar, but the news still hit me hard. I loved what I'd heard of him, be it from his time in seminal drone-folk collective Pelt or his first few solo outings, and his sudden death felt like a huge blow to the insurgent American Primitivism revival that was building up over the decade. The worst of it was that when I heard the news I realized that both Opium Music and Kensington Blues were albums that had slipped my mind completely when I was making this list, and the latter of which at least would have been a shoo-in for the top 50 if not higher. So even though I'll spend more time talking about one of the newer leading lights f the American Primitivism scene today, consider this post as much for Jack Rose as it is for James Blackshaw. It may not be the epitaph that Rose deserves, but it makes me feel a bit less shitty for having him slip my mind in the list-making process.

Blackshaw isn't as similar to Rose as I'd initially thought. Based on his marvelous 2007 breakthrough The Cloud of Unknowing I'd assumed he was another in the line of Fahey-worshippers that seemed to wait until this decade to really make their presence felt - Ben Chasny, Rose, Steffan Basho-Junghans, that Locust Records Wooden Guitar compilation from the early decade - albeit one that was played with more conviction and skill than I'd anticipated. If its follow up, 2008's Litany of Echoesmade anything clear it was that we weren't just talking about an exceptionally talented Fahey acolyte but an exceptionally talented composer and performer period. This is still American Primitive Guitar at its core, but there are elements of classical music, chamber music and in collaborator Fran Bury's violin and viola contributions a keen sense of interplay and harmonics. All that is taken to the next level by Blackshaw's guitar playing, using his 12-string acoustic guitar to its full potential and deriving a sort of harmonic richness that just wouldn't be possible on any othe instrument. It never ceases to amaze me that something like "Shroud" is the product of one man and one guitar; the way it's recorded and the way Blackshaw plays, making excellent use of the overtones and reverberations generated by the room to give the song a richness and depth that few others in his immediate group of peers can manage.

As great as "Shroud" and the other purely solo piece "Echo and Abyss" are, the real stunner here is the 12 and a half minute "Past Has Not Passed" which not only takes full advantage of Blackshaw's guitar but adds in Bury's violin as a counterpoint. The melding of the two instruments, Blackshaw letting out a flurry of absolutely beautiful, fluid arpeggios while Bury adds in both a melodic through line and some low viola drones to add to the harmonic texture of the piece. It's some of the most expressive playing the decade has to offer, and from such a bare-bones ensemble it sounds massive, with Bury's multi-tracked string drones reverberating endlessly through the room, Blackshaw's guitar doing likewise and Bury's overdubbed violin sounding out a sharp contrast to the lushness of the rest of the piece. Her other contributions are just as essential, but the confluence of everything on "Past Has Not Passed" gives her her best showcase.

As for the other pieces, the brief "Infinite Circle" is the most droney piece the album offers up, with Bury's viola once again providing the grounding while Blackshaw does a less intricate version of his usual thing, and he album's bookends are foreboding piano pieces reminiscent of Steve Reich at times. They may not be as rich and pretty as the guitar based pieces but they're a key part of what set Blackshaw apart from his peers. He's not just indulging in the American Primitive guitar but taking detours into the realms of classical composition and chamber music sonics to give the album a distinct feel. It would work fine as a straight guitar album with an hour of pieces like "Shroud" but the variety, however slight, it offers pushes it ahead of its obvious peers. That and the fact that it sounds so fucking immaculate, so dense with reverberating guitar notes that seem to hang in the air forever with their overtones mingling to create a rich harmonic bed. It kind of comes with the territory I suppose, but it's stunning nonetheless.

Video: "Past Has Not Passed (Live)"

No comments: