Hard-to-find

Six Of The Best – James Yorkston

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.

The Lang Toun (single, 2002)

 

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.

Live!

McCrosby, Thrills ‘n Snash

One of the many things I do outwith the blogosphere is that I’m involved in putting on gigs in my wee corner of the world. It’s not something I mention much on here, partly because much of the music, while really great, doesn’t really fit in with the ethos of what Plain Or Pan is about (ie, old stuff by old bands.) I became involved when a small group of us got talking about all the big acts who’d come to Irvine as part of their UK tours. Irvine, believe it or not, was quite the hotbed at one time; The Clash, The Jam, The Smiths, Madness, Chuck Berry, Big Country, Bjork, Oasis, Supergrass, Thin Lizzy, The Wonderstuff….. all graced our wee town with their presence. They were brought here by one man, the great Willie Freckleton, and when he died a few years ago, the council failed to fill his position and the acts dried up. Irvine is a deprived town, and starved of popular culture, it can feel even more depressing than it should. So, along with my like-minded pals, we decided to act.

We organised a festival, Freckfest, named in Willie’s honour, and put on The Magic Numbers at the top of a bill including local acts. It was always Willie’s thing that he’d have a local act supporting the big visiting star. It might’ve been the local band’s big break, but more often than not it was their brief spotlight into the glitzy world of rock ‘n roll before imploding in a storm of musical differences and stolen drummers. All of us in the past benefited from Willie’s ideal and in the distant past you’d have caught us gleefully thrashing away in our own no-hope bands as we warmed the audience up for BMX Bandits or John Martyn or whoever else was in town. Great times!

Now that none of us are in ‘promising local bands’ any more, we felt it was time to take the baton left behind by Willie and pick up where he left off. The Magic Numbers show was not as well attended as we’d have liked, but it was a brilliant event and everyone who came to it asked if we’d be doing more things like it. Fast forward 2 and a bit years and we’ve now been given a monthly slot to fill in the local arts centre. We’ve had all manner of acts in there; Nik Kershaw for 2 sold out nights, solo Glenn Tilbrook Squeezed in-between concerts he was playing with his day-job band, up-and-comers like Neon Waltz, broadcaster Andy Kershaw who told us tales of a life less ordinary. Wherever possible, we’ve had local acts playing support. Last year we landed Johnny Marr, and without a suitable venue in Irvine, we put him on in Kilmarnock. Suddenly, it’s getting quite serious, and we could be doing gigs twice a week if we had the time and resources. Not bad going for a bunch of enthusiastic unpaid volunteers.

pictish yorkston withered iphone

On Friday night we kicked off our 2016 calendar with a full house (and a waiting list of gig goers desperate for any spare tickets), guaranteeing that tickets for a Songwriters’ Circle featuring James Yorkston, Withered Hand and The Pictish Trail were the hottest in the country.

We headlined Celtic Connections last night,” intoned the quietly-spoken Yorkston during the second half. “…as the warm-up for Irvine.” Cue massive cheers and applause. By all accounts the previous night’s show had been a cracker, and judging by the weary-looking faces on the three performer’s faces, they’d made the most of the offer to indulge in the Festival’s legendary after-show hospitality.

I got to bed around 4am,” sighed James. “I left Johnny (Pictish Trail) and Dan (Withered Hand) to it.” With three under-par performers, fresh from the glory of a massive Celtic Connections show and squeezed onto the HAC’s ‘stage’ (it’s actually just a space on the floor where a local am-dram group might perform, surrounded on 3 sides by banks of seating – a brilliant, intimate, whites-of-the-eyes venue), this didn’t bode well for the night ahead. The artists even admitted as much afterwards. We shouldn’t have worried.

pictish withered audience(C) Paul Camlin

Beginning with Withered Hand’s ‘Life Of Doubt’, replete with a wheezing Neil Young-ish harmonica and some excellent finger-picking, the trio rolled out two terrific sets of well-paced originals. The plan was that each artist would deliver 10 of their own songs, accompanied by the other two on occasional instrumentation and backing vocals. Given that they had been playing as a group for the previous two weeks on tour, by the time they arrived in Irvine they were extremely comfortable in one another’s company and were well-versed in one another’s material.

IMG_1163(C) Paul Camlin

Withered Hand gave way to James Yorkston, airing the best bits of an embarrassingly-rich back catalogue in-between some highly entertaining stories and light-hearted put-downs of his band mates. A highlight of the first half was the version of Withered Hand’s ‘California’, all triple-part, slightly-skew-whiff harmonies, delicately plucked 6 strings and moody atmospherics. I tend not to write notes during a gig, but during this one I wrote ‘McCrosby, Stills and Nash’, which will make perfect sense to anyone there.

Withered HandCalifornia

If James was the dry-witted, droll one with the introverted tunes, and Dan the slightly foul-mouthed one with a keen ear for the closest thing to a pop song you’d hear all night, Johnny Pictish Trail was the extroverted, out-going leader of the pack.

His tunes veered from folkish, socially-conscious beauties to (bizarrely for half the unsuspecting audience) lo-fi, electro-enhanced 30-second wonders with subject matter ranging from getting your foot stuck in concrete to sweating battery acid. “Is it my turn now? Ok! Would you like a disco song or a depressing song? Tell you what, here’s a depressing disco song…” And just as your ears were recovering from the aural assault, it’d be back to James who’d tell a brilliant monologue about last night’s hotel, before working the band into an intricately-woven arrangement of one the choicest cuts from his dozen or so long players.

pictish withered chinese dragons(C) Paul Camlin

The audience sat in reverential silence, laughed at the easy-going on-stage patter shared between the three artists and lapped up what is already a contender for Gig Of The Year. As the artists signed merchandise and chatted to fans at the end, they too agreed this had been the best night of the tour, and not just because they’d raided the HAC’s wardrobe department and appeared for the 2nd half wearing three Chinese dragon heads. Honestly, you really had to be there…