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James Blackshaw - The Glass Bead Game

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Artist: James Blackshaw

Album: The Glass Bead Game

Label: Young God

Review date: May. 26, 2009

James Blackshaw’s early records trace an enviably meteoric and apparently effortless ascent. From his debut Celeste through the grand O True Believers, he has displayed an uncommon command of the 12-string guitar’s rich sonorous possibilities, displayed talents for exotic arrangement, and elaborated on a skill for extended melodic development that has earned comparisons to Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull. He makes no secret of his ambition to be more than a hot acoustic guitar player. From the beginning he’s worked in long compositional forms; more recently he has tried on the guise of sonic experimenter on Cloud Of Unknowing’s “Stained Glass Windows,” then donned the robes of the piano-playing minimalist composer on last year’s Litany Of Echoes. But in these efforts at artistic growth have come at a price. Parts of Litany were pretty but kind of dull, and The Glass Bead Game is similarly afflicted. Blackshaw’s easy development seems to have reached a plateau.

“Cross” opens the album with a strong hand. Joolie Wood and John Contreras’s viola and cello limn a gamboling guitar pattern, leaving gaps for an ornate overdubbed fingerpicking duo. Then Lavinia Blackwell’s (Trembling Bells, Directing Hand) wordless vocals weave into the mix to create an effect that is equal parts madrigal and “Music For Eighteen Musicians”; it’s appealingly frothy and evocative of a drive in the English countryside on a sunny spring day. “Bled” strips things back to just the guitars, and it’s a joy just to let yourself get lost in the rich tones he obtains from them.

But then he switches to piano for “Fix.” Blackshaw is by no means the virtuoso on the keyboard that he is on the 12-string, but on Litany he was able to make that work in his favor by foregrounding the effort it took to play what he’d written. There’s no such struggle here. Although it comes wrapped in ornate and dainty strings, the piano melody is plodding and dull, like the outcome of a student’s assignment to write a Philip Glass tune. The following tune, “Key,” works in much the same area as “Bled,” and the change between the two is like walking from a cold, drafty gallery into a small room warmed by a crackling log fire.

Blackshaw returns to the piano for the closer “Arc.” The piece’s introduction is slow and brooding, and feels burdened by consciousness of its own importance. The music comes to life when Blackshaw strives to recreate the swirling effect he obtains so effortlessly with his guitar tremolos by striking the notes close together with the sustain pedal depressed, and then adding Blackwell’s voice and the strings to thicken the texture. Blackshaw seems to be going for something like Charlemagne Palestine’s full-on wall of sound, but “Arc” is nowhere near as engulfing as, say, Strumming Music.

It could be that, with work, Blackshaw will have as great a command of the piano and chamber music dynamics as he has of his guitar. But he’s not there yet.

By Bill Meyer

Other Reviews of James Blackshaw


Waking Into Sleep

The Cloud of Unknowing

Litany of Echoes

All is Falling

Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death

Read More

View all articles by Bill Meyer

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