James Rhodes' third album, Bullets & Lullabies, is a two-edged, somewhat bi-polar sword; a disc of frantic, aggressive, dramatic, fast-paced energy contrasted with a disc of a calmer, more sensitive alter ego, or in Rhodes' own words a two-disc album of 'Uppers & Downers' or 'Cocaine & Benzos'. Signed to the rock division of one of the world's biggest labels, Warner Brothers Records, Rhodes dresses like many of his label mates; jeans and trainers, casual and relaxed. He's got the trademark longish hair of a rock star and big black framed glasses to boot. The difference? Rhodes, breaking convention and the elitist stuffiness that surrounds his genre, is essentially a virtuoso classical pianist; but better than.
Rather than marathon full-length classical works, however, Bullets & Lullabies treats us to two seven-track collections of snippets from both dynamic and dramatic works and opposing calmer, more tranquil works. Having had a turbulent psychiatric history, as suggested by the titles of his previous albums, Rhodes intended this album as a glimpse of 24 hours in his world; a torrent of diverse and ever-changing emotions from anger through chaos to hope and victory and back again, in the form of two virtuosic solo discs, both of which glimmer suggestions of the other.
Fast moving and squeezing lots of notes into a short space of time, the Bullets disc opens with an astounding interpretation of Ravel's 'Toccata from le tombeau de Couperin'. The music moves between sections of dramatic suspense and those of hopeful beauty; there's frenzied busy-ness equivalent to pounding and frantic rock music, interspersed occasionally with fragments of different tonality, equally as busy but of happier mood. Throughout the track there's this gradual crescendo that pushes and builds to a superb climax; the same virtuosic urgency pushes throughout much of the disc.
Rhodes has thankfully steered clear of clich' "popular classics" and later interprets the second movement from Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E Flat Op.31 No.3; a busy but jolly and content sounding piece with moments of sudden intense drama contrasted by the continuous flow of busy-ness. Much like the ever-changing psychological state that Rhodes intended on echoing through music, the piece moves between contented and uneasy throughout. The closest he gets to a "popular classic" on this album is his wonderfully dramatic performance of Grieg's 'In The Hall Of The Mountain King' (arranged by Grigory Ginzburg), which is familiar nationwide as the Alton Towers theme. The music slowly creeps in full of suspense, starting low and gradually pushing upwards and forwards full of drama, before launching into a frantic and rapid climax, every bit as exhilarating as a raging, multiple-layered burst of dramatic technical rock.
The Lullabies side of Rhodes' offering is a selection of much calmer, more sensitive and expressive music reflective of a more hopeful and serene state of mind. In listening to this second seven track collection of beauties, it's easy to hear where the compositions of the popular current pianist Ludivico Einaudi have grown from; even the beautiful soundscapes and divine musical bled of the likes of Sigur Ros. The second of Rhodes' discs is easier on both pulse and ears with only brief suggestions of the more frantic musical ethos of the other disc; amongst its' tracklisting is Debussy's 'Clair de lune, from Suite bergamasque' which was used on the soundtrack for Atonement.
Fast or slow, dramatic or sensitive, frantic or serene; there is no denying that James Rhodes' playing is not only virtuosic and technically astute but also seems to ooze a knowing, deeply expressive personality. Rhodes captures great variety and contrast through the entire album, taking the listener on a thoroughly enjoyable musical and psychological rollercoaster through both his well-considered diverse tracklisting and his outstanding talent as a pianist. Commendable and exciting too is Rhodes' commitment to talking classical music out of its' inherent stuffy and elitist bubble, making his playing accessible to all. A fantastic effort from a real talent; jeans an' all!