James Blackshaw

Summoning Suns

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James Blackshaw is still widely -- and rightfully -- regarded as an acoustic guitar innovator who has extended the limits of the instrument's vocabulary. But he is also much more than that. His post-classical collaborations on Litany of Echoes with violinist/violist Fran Bury and with Current 93's chamber strings on The Glass Bead Game, the multi-instrumental long-form composition that is All Is Falling, the improvised collaboration with pianist Lubomyr Melnyk on The Watchers, and his own score for Magistrat, one of the five 1913 silent films that made up the Fantômas serials, all testify to his convincing search through several musical languages. Given this, it was only a question of time before Blackshaw cut a singer/songwriter record that employs both his ambition and inner sense of reflection. Though it retains a melodic and mostly laid-back feel throughout, Summoning Suns is wonderfully diverse -- and focused -- over 33 minutes. "Averoigne" is a lithe instrumental for glockenspiel, chimes, organ, and pianos. "Confetti" is a vocal duet with Annie Nilsson. His fingerpicked acoustic, drums, pedal steel, piano, a minimal drum kit, and cello all add color and texture. It's breezy, confident, wryly humorous, and lovely. This is where Van Dyke Parks' early parlor melodies meet Jim O'Rourke's (and Annie's dad Harry's) infectious, poignant, screwy pop. In the middle, a banjo jumps into the tune's backdrop before disappearing without a trace, adding sophistication and humor. "Failure's Flame" is a tender paean to self-acceptance -- even when one's habits can be seriously self-destructive. Its structure, melody, and production all nod toward Elliott Smith, but Blackshaw's signature is indelible in the presence of a flute that flits like a butterfly throughout its second half. Given this, it's not clear whether the tune is confessional, an indirect tribute to the late songwriter, or both. The title track is dreamy, folk-inflected British pop/rock with glances at John Renbourn and Sandy Denny, as Blackshaw's acoustic fingerstyle playing tops a slippery drum kit and a minimal bassline before the chamber strings add a pillowy surface for his warm vocal to fall into. "Towa Yo Nume" contains an infectiously memorable melody reminiscent of a nursery rhyme. It's a vocal duet, in Japanese, with singer/songwriter Kaoru Noda. Like other songs on this set, there are lush, sideways charts adding depth; strings, flute, and a pedal steel color both vocals and acoustic guitar. Blackshaw pulls out his 12-string for closer "Winter Flies." It's a haunting instrumental that engages droning Anglo-Celtic balladry, classical music, and Eastern whole-toned modalism. Summoning Suns is no less ambitious than Blackshaw's more deliberately experimental records. Though it is the first time he has brought his vocal skills so prominently to the forefront, he does so with so much confidence (not to mention aplomb in his arrangements) that he commands the listener's attention through gentle seduction. This may be the record he's secretly wanted to make for a very long time.

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