There is drizzle in the air. The cricket season is drawing to a close. A lusty gust of wind is enough to dislodge the first feeble leaves of the ash tree at the back of the garden. Thoughts turn from salads and Sancerre to stews and ruby ales. Autumn, it seems, is coming early in these parts. Just in time for the new James Yorkston album.
The root of Yorkston’s appeal is a slippery thing to pin down. Close inspection of his musical and lyrical style reveal an admirable lack of sentimentality, but the feelings he provokes in his listeners veer close to the nostalgic – which perhaps helps to explain the opening paragraph of this review. There are no great stylistic summersaults, nor does he ever appear to stretch himself vocally. On a first listen his songs may come across as a little bleak, or dreich, as the man himself might say. But with continued acquaintance his work reveals itself to be warm, clever and often very funny.
But alongside the warmth there is always a hint of bitterness, a small but welcome dose of cynicism. Nowhere is this more apparent than The Cellardyke Recording And Wassailing Society’s opener Fellow Man, which is full of heartfelt advice and hearty camaraderie but tempered with needle-sharp barbs aimed at ex-lovers. The simple call-and-response chorus instantly makes it one of the most memorable songs in the Yorkston oeuvre, the gentle irony and deadpan delivery combine to make it one of the best.
Many artists would struggle to make a record that lived up to the excellence of a lead track like Fellow Man. Not so Yorkston. While Cellardyke is, even by Yorkston’s standards, a quiet and unhurried affair, the individual songs are of an exceptionally high quality (as is the roster of guest artists, which includes fellow Fence Collective alumni KT Tunstall and Pictish Trail). Guy Fawkes’ Signature is a mostly spoken-word narrative that gives free reign to Yorkston’s storytelling ability referencing (amongst other things) his own songs and Pussy Riot to a musical backdrop that contains synth and Fimber Bravo’s steel drums as well as the more traditional folk instruments.
Much of Yorkston’s greatness as a songwriter comes from his ability to be at once heart-warming and heart-breaking. Broken Wave (A Blues For Doogie) is the best example of this, and possibly the best song on the record. Musically it is all soft-focus charm; lyrically it’s a pained but ultimately positive elegy to Yorkston’s former bass player Doogie Paul. Elsewhere there are gently bestial dream-stories (Red Fox), jaunty, sweary duets (Great Ghosts) and brief, almost punky sing-alongs (Sleep On). King Of The Moles recounts a father-child dialogue without a hint of slushiness, and The Very Very Best – a wonderful counterpoint to Fellow Man – is as honest a song you can get about the ambiguities of moving on from a relationship.
Credit must go to the producer – Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor – who perhaps surprisingly keeps the sound relatively uncluttered, and the talented guests well in their places. Often Yorkston’s understated acoustic guitar is to the forefront, his rainy-day pitter-patter playing style lending the album its pervading sense of melancholy. At other times – on The Blues You Sang, for example – the soft, long violin notes seep in courtesy of Emma Smith, while Jon Thorne’s softly-plucked double bass is prominent on Sweet Sweet.
Cellardyke ends with a lo-fi, piano and voice cover of Chris Bell’s You And Your Sister, one of the saddest, most tender songs in the history of pop music. It provides an appropriate coda to an album that is replete with delicate, elusive joys and eloquent, autumnal sadness.
Review by: Thomas Blake
A Short Film on the Making of the Album
26th August – Old Queens Head, London (Album Launch Party feat. James Yorkston/KT Tunstall/Pictish Trail + support from Rozi Plain)
18th September – Cyprus Avenue, Cork
19th September – Cleeres, Kilkenny
20th September – Working Man’s Club, Dublin
21st September – Roisin Dubh, Galway
25th September – Dingwalls, London (feat. James Yorkston/Alexis Taylor/KT Tunstall/The Pictish Trail/Jon Thorne/Emma Smith + support)
James Yorkston (duo shows with Jon Thorne on double bass):
7th October – Deaf Institute, Manchester
8th October – Fibbers, York
9th October – Bodega, Nottingham
10th October – The Harley, Sheffield
11th October – Arts Centre, Reading
12th October – Komedia, Brighton
13th October – Louisiana, Bristol
14th October – Leaf, Liverpool
James Yorkston solo:
26th October – Red Suite, Dundee
28th October – Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society is Out Now via Domino Records
Order via: Amazon