James Blackshaw: Holly EP
Important Records

As much as James Blackshaw's 2010 full-length release All Is Falling warranted admiration, its material nevertheless emphasized meticulously composed arrangements to such a degree that his renowned guitar-playing gifts ended up being rather shortchanged in the process. That imbalance has been rectified on the British artist's latest release, a beautiful two-track collection that he recorded during the first three months of 2011 after an intense year of touring in support of his eighth album. If anything, the balance Blackshaw strikes on the EP calls to mind the equally perfect balance heard on The Glass Bead Game, his full-length precursor to All Is Falling.

An episodic set-piece of multiple moods, “Holly” opens with a lilting episode of delicate guitar playing that soon segues into a more exuberant passage where Blackshaw accompanies his rapid picking with sparse piano accompaniment. The mood is reflective, wistful even, and the playing tastefully restrained yet still emotionally affecting. A subsequent scene finds piano patterns flowing in Glass-like waves before string figures emerge, slowing the tempo until a reprise of the opening section re-asserts itself (complementing Blackshaw on guitar and piano is Charlotte Glasson, who makes elegant clarinet, saxophone, flute, and violin contributions to the recording). In its opening moments, “Boo, Forever” seems to pay tribute to the Takoma guitar-playing tradition in general, but Blackshaw quickly makes the piece his own through the sheer forcefulness of his compositional voice. While its eight minutes are largely given over to his guitar playing, the beauty of “Boo, Forever” deepens when Glasson adds stirring melodic figures to the second half, which in effect bolster the piece's compositional roundedness. Needless to say, Blackshaw's guitar playing (on this release both 12-string and nylon string guitar are heard) is as stunning as always, but what most recommends the release is that his primary strengths, his formidable guitar playing technique and composing gifts, are showcased in equal manner. Taken together, the two acoustic settings provide a magnificent twenty-one-minute portrait of Blackshaw's artistry.

October 2011