In 2011 James Yorkston struck up a chance friendship with Suhail Yusuf Khan, a singer from New Dehli (who also happens to be one of the world’s highly acclaimed players of the Sangari, an Indian stringed instrument whose sound is said to resemble that of the human singing voice). The duo became a trio when Yorkston invited previous collaborator and jazz-trained double bassist Jon Thorne to join them. Four years, a handful of live dates and a recording session in Northern Ireland later, this motley combination birthed an album, and what a good album it is too.
The audacious track that gets Everything Sacred going, Knochentanz (‘bone dance’, if my German serves me correctly) is a monster, just shy of fourteen minutes, whose first section introduces the vocal capabilities of the sarangi, slowly and deliberately. By the halfway point the instrument is drunkenly swooping and careening, and when Khan’s voice kicks in around two thirds of the way into the song, it seems like an extension of his sarangi, rather than the other way around. Yorkston’s guitar, by turns gentle and percussive, is always sympathetic, and there is an improvisatory feel to the whole track, based on nimble bass and acoustic drones. The fact that the song seems to have an implicit structure, almost even a narrative arc (not too dissimilar to the quiet-loud-quiet aesthetic of post-rock) is all the more surprising and satisfying given the obvious freedom in which the musicians are working. If there is a precedent to this in western music then it must be the more experimental, elongated tracks by the Incredible String Band, but this feels altogether more locked-in, and at the same time freer. Perhaps this is where the ISB would have ended up if they had not kicked the drugs in 1969.
A cover of Ivor Cutler’s Little Black Buzzer anchors proceedings firmly back in Yorkston’s native Scotland. It functions as a duet between Yorkston and guest vocalist Lisa O’Neill, with Khan’s droning instrumentation perfectly accompanying the surreality of Cutler’s words. Then, to make matters stranger, Khan takes over the vocal duties at the end of the song – a non-sequitur Cutler himself would have been proud of.
The album’s other cover is Lal Waterson’s Song For Thirza. Yorkston’s careworn delivery – once again accompanied by O’Neill – brings a level of acceptance, or possibly resignation, to the heartbreaking lyrics. It is not the first time Yorkston has covered Warterson (his take on Midnight Feast is another gem and can be found on When The Haar Rolls In) and he clearly loves this most singular and underrated of songwriters.
Vachaspati/Kaavya is a brief instrumental, and a showcase not just for Khan’s dexterity but also Thorne’s deft, jazz-inflected double bass. It is followed by Everything Sacred, which gives both Thorne and Khan a chance to show of their singing. It is a thoughtful, almost morbid song, in which Yorkston’s guitar and the other instruments create a rain-washed canvas and the vocals – Thorne’s troubled lyrics and Khan’s tortured phrasing – are front and centre of the picture.
Western musicians have a long and varied history of attempting to assimilate Asian musical structures and themes into jazz, classical and rock. One of the most successful early experimentalists in the sphere of rock and pop was Jimmy Page, and Sufi Song resembles something that Page might have come up with had he carried on down that route. Its combination of confident guitar and swirling sarangi that grows more hyperactive as the song progresses is perhaps the best example on the album of Yorkston and Khan’s interplay. Khan’s vocal performance – all controlled nose-dives, swoops and upward spirals is not so much a seal of authenticity (for when does good music have to prove its authenticity?) but an affirmative rallying cry for the possibilities of cross-cultural musical pollination.
When I wrote about Yorkston’s most recent solo album – the consistently excellent The Cellardyke Recording And Wassailing Society – I lavished praise on one song in particular. That song was the unbelievably sad, beautiful Broken Wave, a goodbye to Yorkston’s bassist Doogie Paul, who had died not long before the album was recorded. Broken Wave is given a welcome reprise here. Once again it features Yorkston’s acoustic guitar at the forefront, but the production here is even more spare than on the first version, and on this occasion there is a plaintive vocal interlude courtesy of Khan which somehow serves to condense the song’s impact further.
The album signs off with the instrumental Jumped The Goose, which again makes the commingling of eastern and western themes and styles seem like the most natural thing in the world, Khan’s dizzy runs playing off against Yorkston’s softly propulsive guitar work. And perhaps it is the most natural thing in the world. Musical languages, like spoken languages, are never fixed. There is a constant state of flux, a constant drip of influences from one to another that augments creative possibilities rather than diluting them. Yorkston, Thorne and Khan have taken advantage of these possibilities to create an album that bristles with inventiveness and skill, an album that is more than the sum of its already impressive parts.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Everything Sacred is released 15th January 2016 via Domino Records
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18th Jan – Anstruther Dreel Halls
19th Jan – Glasgow Celtic Connections
16th Feb – Norwich – Bicycle Shop
17th Feb – Cambridge – The Junction 2
18th Feb – Warwick – Arts Centre
19th Feb – Oxford – St Barnabas Church
20th Feb – Hull – Fruit
21st Feb – Sheffield – Yellow Arch
23rd Feb – Leeds – Belgrave Music Hall
24th Feb – Manchester – Deaf Institute
25th Feb – London – Old Queen’s Head
27th Feb – Cardiff – St John’s Church
28th Feb – Bath – Komedia
29th Feb – Exeter – The Phoenix