Just playing the new Love As Laughter album, as recommended by one of you on the albums of the year thus far thread, when Sam Jayne serendipitously sings, “Listen to the radio play ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’.” Serendipitous because I’ve just posted John Robinson’s excellent review of Neil Young’s Hop Farm jam yesterday over at the Live blog.
I skipped the Neilfest, choosing instead to spend five hours watching Gavin Rossdale’s faintly menacing repertoire of punches, howls and grimaces on the television instead. Back at the office this morning, I discovered someone plausibly calling themselves Van Dyke Parks had posted a message on the blog about his new album with Inara George. And, if I can indulge in a bit more low-calorie namedropping, that Kieran Hebden (interviewed recently by one of the Uncut freelancers) had personally blamed me for coming up with the phrase “folktronica”.
I can’t actually remember coming up with something so heinous, but I should certainly plead guilty to using it often enough a few years ago, when I wrote a lot about Four Tet and Kieran’s other multifarious activities. One of his projects was an extraordinary single by a diffident Scottish folk-singer called James Yorkston. “The Lang Toun” lasted about ten minutes, concerned some kind of grim marital fighting (if memory serves), and contrived to be a cross between folk and the motorik end of Krautrock. It definitely wasn’t, um, ’tronic, but it had an expansive ambition which stretched the parameters of a music which, at that time, I considered to be fairly restrictive.
I’m not sure whether, on his subsequent albums, Yorkston has ever fully pursued that trajectory. But over time, perhaps because of his association with what I tend to see as the generally underwhelming Fence Collective, I think I may have taken him a little for granted.
Until, that is, the fourth James Yorkston album turned up the other week. It’s called “When The Haar Rolls In”, and it’s terrific. It might be slightly invidious to compare him with other contemporary folksingers who cross over somehow into the rock world. But when I see all the publicity and acclaim afforded Seth Lakeman’s awfully over-wrought AOR folk (Great: David Gray with a fiddle), then the subtle modernising art of Yorkston and Alasdair Roberts sounds ever more valuable.
Some very good songs, here, especially “Tortoise Regrets Hare”, a duet with Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe that’s as unforcedly memorable a song as he’s written, and a stately, droning version of Lal Waterson’s “Midnight Feast” that features the assembled forces of the Watersons.
But it’s less the songs, more the prevailing atmosphere of “When The Haar Rolls In” that’s so impressive. The hand-knitted motorik of “The Lang Toun” has gracefully evolved into great rickety flurries from Yorkston’s band, so that tracks like the title song have a kind of febrile grandeur, an earthy and unfussy sense of the epic. Yorkston himself is similarly unfussy: he has a lovely, conversational roll to his singing, and a slightly bluff tenderness that always manages to avoid sentimentality – even when, as on the immensely pretty “Queen Of Spain”, he’s comparing girls to butterflies.
It all sounds very, very impressive, and the intuitive band playing throughout reminds me, weirdly, of a folk version of the Bad Seeds: that looseness and tautness, those effortless waves of brittle sound, the way they track the singer so empathetically. Good stuff.