James Blackshaw - The Cloud of Unknowing (Tompkins Square LP)
I always liked James Blackshaw but this is the first release of his I've actually owned, I think. Such is the crux of the internet and not having enough wealth to spread it into all the corners I may so desire. Well ain't that a B. But, through the use of our friend the MP3, I've been keeping tabs on James, from the lovely "Celeste" to the slightly off-kilter but equally enjoyable "O True Believers", but only now did I spring into action and snap up a copy of his latest "The Cloud of Unknowing" because it's the record I always felt he had in him (really!) and it absolutely destroys me every time I play it, which is a lot these days. I probably need to run the spiel by you again as much as you need to hear it again, but James is one of those post-Fahey/Basho/Kottke/Bull acolytes that roam the hillsides sniffing fresh dew, acoustico in hand (a 12-string on this voyage). In addition to setting himself apart from that ilk (while simultaneously wearing its influence on his sleeve), I never thought Blackshaw really fit in with the aforementioned new(er) breed - Jack Rose, Glenn Jones, Rick Bishop, Ben Chasny, you know the names. All those guys have a rough edge to their playing. Not to a fault, mind you. But Blackshaw's playing is almost a pure, distilled take on Takoma (and India), imbued with an almost continuous stream of hopeful dissonance. In fact if you want to make a case for a criticism of "Cloud", you might say that it's excessively, what's a word, flowery? To the point of new age-y-ness? At some points? But alas. Talking about criticisms before I even get started, where are my manners.
The two main reasons to own this record are stuck at the beginning of side one and the end of side two - the 11-minute title track and the 15-minute "Stained Glass Windows", respectively. "Cloud" splays out a couple of formalities before slipping into a most sublime and encompassing refined/Primitive raga, with each of Blackshaw's rapidly shifting finger flicks spinning a cocoon-like web through the speakers, with precious care taken to wrap the listener up without even a moment of angularity in which one might awaken, startled, from their gossamer slumber. "Windows" is perhaps even more hypnotizing, focusing on constant repetition with Blackshaw working a dense layer of background notes that act like a La Monte Young backdrop to the runs his other hand is making. In between these two monumental slabs lie three shorter pieces. "Running to the Ghost" evokes the spirit of Van Dyke Parks with a steady ebb of crescendoing/receding notes joined by Fran Bury's violin and effusive chimes that, coming right after "Cloud", make the case for this one being just a bit too sweet on the teeth. On the other hand, "The Mirror Speaks" begins with a muddy torrent of string work that sounds downright aggressive, and while Blackshaw eases up the rest of the way, the song remains weighted with a sense of terse urgency. The same might be said for the cymbala-centric groan of "Clouds Collapse" which splits the record in two - as the only track without a hint of 12-string flourish on it, and with a dull noisy grind and swirling dark matter off in its horizon, it only hints at the fangs Blackshaw bares fully on the last five minues of the record. As the strains of "Stained Glass Window" fade out, they're replaced with an ominous lurch and fervent string scream by Bury's violin, kinda sounding like Eyvind Kang on the wrong side of the bed or a C. Spencer Yeh/Francisco Lopez hook up. Even Blackshaw's attempts at ugliness aren't enough to put a damper on the spirits in lifts on almost every other minute of its existence. And if you're willing and don't got a fully jaded/pessimistic soul, "Cloud of Unknowing" will let you scale some seriously heaven-scraping heights. Totally, truly, wildly, absolutely and highly recommended.
And speaking of killing it, this is another jewel in the Tompkins Square tiara, which has quietly but steadily built up an impressive little roster. The "Imaginational Anthem" compilations, the great Peter Walker tribute/celebration, Robbie Basho "Venus in Cancer" reissue, and a record each by Spencer Moore and Harry Taussig that I've yet to hear but ought to provide me with some real and much-needed education. Chapeau, sirs.
Click here to listen to MP3 samples from the above album