Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Comforting Sounds

James Blackshaw - The Glass Bead Game (Young God, 2009)

In spite of (or perhaps because of?) once naming a song ‘The Sound and The Fury’, I’m rather suspicious of musical works named after great literature. It always seems rather lazy to state your broader inspirations in such a transparent and unadventurous way. This, however, is a James Blackshaw record, and this exceptionally gifted young guitarist and composer has yet to disappoint. True to form, ‘The Glass Bead Game’ marks a further development of his ambition and may well be his most fully realised work to date (although at least one reviewer at The Wire magazine is obstinately dissenting from the critical consensus for Blackshaw). Now signed to Michael Gira’s Young God label, Blackshaw looks sure to secure yet more devotion from the faithful for this extraordinary record.

Even given his unexpected piano playing on ‘Litany of Echoes’, it might still have been tempting to dismiss Blackshaw as a derivative exponent of the Takoma school of folk music. ‘The Glass Bead Game’ answers this charge with a richer, more arranged tapestry of sound. The opening ‘Cross’ is simply beautiful. Whilst Blackshaw’s basic guitar foundation sustains his core preoccupations and could have appeared on any of his albums thus far, the addition of strings (contributed by members of Current 93) and wordless vocals takes it to entirely new territory. The vocals hint at predictable Reichian influences but actually remind me more of Meredith Monk’s ‘Mercy’. There’s already something mysteriously powerful about Blackshaw’s hypnotic playing – whilst it remains harmonically anchored, it’s still emotionally resonant and deeply satisfying.

The epic, 18-minute ‘Arc’ (with Blackshaw on piano again) is the yang to the yin of ‘Cross’ and it therefore makes perfect logical sense that it should close the album. Whilst it adheres to a minimalist framework, there’s something powerful, maybe even devotional about it, achieved largely through the deliberate over-use of the sustain pedal, allowing its clusters to blur, overlap and blissfully merge. The heavy sustain comes perilously close to burying the contributions from strings and wind instruments, but in effect allows notes to rise and fall from a resplendent overall sheet of sound. The effect is deeply moving.

In between, there’s the sublime ‘Bled’ which seems to begin with broad brush strokes before expanding into a more detailed and colourful response to the initial theme. There might even be a rare nod to the blues in its closing minutes. ‘Key’ is more in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from Blackshaw, but no less impressive for its notional familiarity. Melodically, it is strikingly pretty.

More controversial for me is the other piano piece ‘Fix’. I have been pondering whether this might be the first time Blackshaw has resorted to more calculated emotional manipulation. Whilst it sounds haunting and sad, the plodding, insistent crotchet rhythm invokes the overrated Sigur Ros, or could even be something Chris Martin from Coldplay might come up with. Whilst the presence of the violin certainly enhances the track’s warmth, I can’t help feeling that this is a bit too straightforward and transparent for Blackshaw, although some see it as the album’s standout track.

Still, this is only a minor quibble with an otherwise outstanding album that sees Blackshaw continue to expand his reach. The ideas are well executed, and developed with care and grace by Blackshaw and his accompanying musicians. These tracks hint that a more ensemble-based approach could be just as fruitful as Blackshaw’s virtuosic solo performances, perhaps even more so.

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