Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
Number 30 in a series:
James Yorkston has been quietly making records for around 20 years. Since 2002’s Mercury-nominated Moving Up Country he’s released a dozen or so albums that draw you in and leave you breathless. Current album The Route To The Harmonium is his most ambitious and most rewarding collection of songs so far.
Championed early-on by Johns Peel and Martyn, James’ quiet way with a melody and unusual arrangement found favour with Domino, the label who continues to release his records today. A cog in the wheel of the Fence Collective, James has made his base in the East Neuk of Fife, choosing to write and record in the tiny village of Cellardyke, just up the road from the famous port of Anstruther yet close enough to smell the fish frying in the famous fish and chip shop.
It’s this environment that sets Yorkston apart from others. Unpretentious yet uncompromising, James has worked with an array of interesting names that help add colour and flavour to his songs; his debut album was produced by both Simon Raymonde (late of Cocteau Twins, now head honcho at Bella Union Records) and Fence friend Kenny Anderson, better known in music as King Creosote. Further excursions in music have found him utilising the skills of Four Tet and 6 Music favourite Jon Hopkins. Currently, there is a Vince Clarke remix of …Harmonium track Sorrow doing the rounds. Had someone such as Thom Yorke or (heaven forbid) Noel Gallagher collaborated with producers and musicians as varied and interesting as those above, it’d be hailed as brave, revolutionary and groundbreaking. James Yorkston, it would appear, has been quietly just that for years.
Often lazily labelled ‘folk’, Yorkston is arguably to that genre what The Beatles were to ‘pop’. Listen with an open mind and you’ll discover there’s far more going on than first meets the ear. It’s perhaps not immediate though, but James’ music is very investible. It takes time to get to know it, to uncover the hidden layers. If you’re looking for a quick fix, you probably won’t find it but the rewards are rich for all who bide their time. When the songs reveal themselves, they appear fully formed, melodies blown in from long ago and plucked from the ether. Add a splash of jangling Swedish nyckelharpa, wheezing harmonium, bouzouki, banjo or battered acoustic and you have a unique and individual sound.
Kick out the Jams. James Yorkston with Pictish Trail and Withered Hand at the HAC, Irvine, January 2016.
Photo (C) Paul Camlin
I’ve been following James’ career on and off since hearing Moving Up Country whilst keeping myself busy behind the Our Price counter one afternoon in its week of release. Left to my own devices, the album rotated on repeat for two or three times, worming its way into my brain, over time becoming one of my go-to records. These days I’m able to call it down from the embedded music section of my brain like an old friend. I only need reminding of the opening notes of Tender To The Blues and I’m whisked back to that empty shop, just me leaning on the counter and James Yorkston filling the silence. James’ songs endure. Since losing my dad to cancer, I can barely listen to 2104’s fragile Broken Wave, a sparse, death rattling eulogy to Doogie Paul, one of The Athletes that accompanied Yorkston on that debut album. My Life Ain’t No Bible, lead-off single from current album The Route To The Harmonium appears to be the Yorkston track of the moment, the one I’ll happily return to again and again. It features a terrific spoken-word rant atop a jangling military two step backing track, a kinda demented take on Van Morrison’s Coney Island as played by the Velvets. But more of that later…
As he begins a UK tour, James spoke to Plain Or Pan and told us the 6 things he’s most proud of having his name to. I say ‘things’ rather than ‘songs’ or ‘records’ because, well, you’ll discover as you read.
Here, then, is James Yorkston‘s Six Of The Best:
Woozy with Cider (The Year of the Leopard, 2006)
This was my first spoken word piece. I’d written it for a super limited Fence Collective album, but I liked it so much I nabbed it for my next album proper. Domino ended up getting a whole load of remixes made for it, including a beautiful piano based reworking that Jon Hopkins did.
It still gets requested, this song, so it makes the occasional live appearance still. It’s fun to do, like revisiting an old friend.
We made this without any hint of record company interest, just myself and a few pals, taking our time, adding small pipes, concertina. It was the last thing on our minds that a London record company would hear it and we’d end up in Abbey Road getting it mastered.
I very seldom play this live nowadays. It’s ten minutes long, so I can hardly be blamed…
My Mouth Ain’t No Bible (The Route to the Harmonium, 2019)
This album was quite a relaxed build. I was tinkering away with it in the background whilst touring with Yorkston Thorne Khan, writing some books, running my club…
This particular song took a long while to finish. It’s based on an improvised jam I recorded with my old band The Athletes, back in 2006, then I overdubbed all sorts:, autoharp, nyckelharpa, duclitone. It was surprisingly easy, tho’. It was obvious when things were working and when they weren’t and then, finally, one day it was finished.
It’s a great tribute to my record label, Domino Records, that they released it as the first single from the album – it’s a seven minute Krautrock rant, it ain’t no pop song.
Little Black Buzzer (Yorkston Thorne Khan, Everything Sacred 2016)
I love this. It’s the Ivor Cutler song, of course, but cut in with the great Irish singer Lisa O’Neill, Suhail’s sarangi playing, and finally Suhail doing some tabla mouth music.
Meeting Suhail has led to a very interesting part of my musical life. Touring India is very different from touring the UK, but every aspect of his life has been different to mine – he began learning his instrument, the sarangi, at the age of two, at his grandfather’s feet. His grandfather, Ustad Sabri Khan was a huge name in Indian classical music and Suhail’s knowledge is incredible.
Put us two together with an incredible jazz bass player, Jon Thorne and there’s this weird bond between us all. It’s not an East meets West thing, though, we’re just three pals making music.
Three Craws (Book. Freight Press, 2016)
I love this wee book. It came out, very briefly, on Freight Books, but almost immediately after publication, Freight went bust and Three Craws sank with it. I value it as highly, career wise, as any one of my albums. It’s a marker of where I am. Any more books to come? I’d certainly hope so… Watch this space etc.
Oh Choices, Wide Rivers (Unreleased)
I was over in Sweden recently and ended up in the studio with a Swedish band. We recorded half a dozen new songs and this particular one has been stuck in my head ever since. It feels good to be moving on, to keep on creating.
That moving and creating is so important. Not one to be held back by past glories, James’ trail blazes brightest when he’s collaborating with others. When will those new songs recorded in Sweden see the light of day? Under which moniker will they appear? Keep an eye out.
James Yorkston is currently on tour. Go and see him if he’s near you.