It was an enlightening experience reviewing both Bonnie Prince Billy and James Yorkston in the same week. No, I never considered slitting my wrists due to their frankly less than euphoric songwriting, nor did I pine for a (more) receding hairline like the two of them, so I too can be a sensitive acoustic practitioner ploughing an essential furrow along folk-country-jazzy lines.
What did become apparent though, is that Yorkston is the UK’s Bonnie Prince Billy. Both sing songs of quiet power with their delicate finger-pickings about the simple life: marriage, children, death. Both have a dedication to rural life and both on their new albums are working with very interesting producers indeed.
Bonnie Prince Billy has gone all avant-garde with Bjork‘s Valgeir Sigurdsson, while Yorkston on The Year Of The Leopard employs Paul Webb, who under the moniker of Rustin Man made a remarkable album, Out Of Season, with Beth Gibbons of Portishead some years ago that was surely the pre-cursor to the flourishing community of UK folk artists now, which Yorkston stands at the forefront of.
Yorkston and Webb produce a beautifully pastoral sound on this record. Track one Summer Song evokes the green-hills-and-vales vibe that sounds like a combination between very early, Barrett-inspired Pink Floyd and Nick Drake. The latter Yorkston (and most other young men nowadays who take up an acoustic guitar and sing sad songs) is compared with all the time. This must stop. Indeed, with his adventures into jazzy territory on this album, such as on The Brussels Rambler, he sounds more like John Martyn.
The best song on The Year Of The Leopard is the single Steady As She Goes. With its sweet harmonies, harmonium and a dreamy chorus, it is everything King Creosote and Adem strive towards but somehow can’t quite achieve. Yorkston does not have a voice that will move the misty mountains his songs of bucolic romance evoke. But he never strays from his range (naturally) and has one of those croaky and cracked tones that adds an emotional edge to his lovely melodies. 5 a.m is one of these, which ask me not how, perhaps with its extraordinary harmonium and awkward chord changes, truly does evoke a feeling of utter exhaustion.
The whole album has a mood of tiredness, but in a great way. Yorkston is a world-weary trooper, and his music has an unhurried reflection to it that is reminiscent of one of his greatest inspirations, Anne Briggs.
Woozy With Cider is a poem written by Yorkston about how the monstrous city and commercial life can weigh down a man. He reads it over a minimalist Steve Reich-like rhythm composed by Reporter. Granted, it sounds like it should be shit, but somehow he has produced an acute confessional portrait of a lover of tradition and folklore trying to scrape his way through a plasticised world. It’s a marvel, as is the whole album. The Scotsman is a precious commodity.