JAMES BLACKSHAW/THE GLASS BEAD GAME/ReviewMuch is made of James BlackshawÂ’s age (he has yet to hit 30), but this is one case where it doesnÂ’t seem to be mere reflexive laziness on the part of the press: it really is something that someone so young has become such a master of the 12-string.
The red alert
01 / 08 / 2009
The Glass Bead Game
Record Review by Adam McKibbin
Much is made of James Blackshaw’s age (he has yet to hit 30), but this is
one case where it doesn’t seem to be mere reflexive laziness on the part of
the press: it really is something that someone so young has become such a
master of the 12-string. Even Blackshaw, who seems perfectly modest and
polite, has admitted to Pitchfork that he’s come to a point where he’s not
quite sure what’s left to do on his instrument of choice, while he did come
across one new prospective challenge during a piece on NPR: scoring a horror
The Glass Bead Game, his seventh studio album, is a product of Blackshaw
asking himself “What’s next?” In particular, he’s become smitten with the
piano, which takes the baton from the guitar on “Fix,” the album’s third
track (there are only five in all, but one spans ten minutes and another
almost twenty). Blackshaw isn’t yet as much of a head-turner or
ear-seducer on piano as he is on guitar, but he’s still playing to his
strengths: graceful, patient compositions that are rich in nuance.
Patience is indeed a virtue; as much technique as Blackshaw may have gleaned
from John Fahey & Co., he’s also studied his minimalism and classical
composition, and the recurring motifs and repetitive threads in his songs
may be what listeners identify as “cinematic.” The melancholy center of
“Fix” almost sounds like something that could have been on an ambient album
like Moby’s Animal Rights (though they are seemingly miles away in both
genre and cred, they are both students of the game – and know a thing or two
about compelling drama).
But let’s back up. If there’s an album this year with a more beautiful and
beguiling opener than The Glass Bead Game’s “Cross,” I have yet to hear it.
Everything crystallizes for Blackshaw here – anchored as usual by his
wonderfully expressive playing, and perfectly melding the fuller sound he’s
chasing. A string section heightens the tension, and Lavinia Blackwall
floats above with a lovely, wordless vocal melody.
The other obviously noteworthy track – “Bled” and “Key” are each
captivating, but more familiar – is the closing odyssey “Arc,” which clocks
in at 18:49 and again finds Blackshaw testing the piano waters. There are
numerous exquisite moments, starting with the sparse piano alone in the
wilderness, then unfurling into a majestic orchestral swell. There are some
lulls in momentum, some transitions that stretch a little long, but it’s a
very promising statement about what’s on the horizon for Blackshaw as he
moves beyond the guitar. In the meantime, “Cross” is the sound of an artist
who’s perfected his current craft in the here and now.