James Yorkston has developed many traits in his long career, which spans over a decade. For one thing, he’s not a man who can succumb to an easy chorus; instead, he lets songs steadily flow without too many bangs and whistles. He delivers lyrics in a comforting, gravelly tone that rarely shifts. The arrangements are delicate, demanding the listener to really pay close attention to hear all the layers. There’s a sense that, with each record that he makes, you know what you’re getting yourself in for.
What has changed, however, is the cast of musicians he plays alongside. He thrives on collaboration and his eighth studio album, The Cellardyke Recording And Wassailing Society, underlines the point. Artists such as KT Tunstall, The Pictish Trail and LP producer Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip play the role of backing band. It’s a unique combination of talents whose combined efforts pay off in satisfying fashion.
It is perhaps to be expected from a record produced by Alexis Taylor that electronics would feature prominently. Yet there’s barely any sign of digital life to be found – and anyone familiar with Yorkston’s work to date won’t be too surprised. There are hints here and there of an electric pulse, but it truly is business as usual.
If anything, it’s Taylor’s vocal skills that stand out more than his use of basic drum machines. In the touching Broken Wave (A Blues for Doogie), a beautiful eulogy to former band member Doogie Paul, who sadly passed away due to cancer two years ago, his contributions are heart-wrenching. He also contributes a commendable performance towards the album’s end during The Very, Very Best. Couple that with KT Tunstall, who is equally brilliant and wide-ranging in style throughout, and we have a work showing off a truly inspired set of supporting vocalists.
As for the lead performer, Yorkston himself is understated but that is a major strength of his. It’s to the producer’s credit that the production values allow him and his lyrics to be the main focus. At his best, such as Red Fox and Guy Fawkes’ Signature, he’s a captivating storyteller; in the latter, his delivery during is hushed and gloriously deadpan.
However, it takes a considerable amount time to recognise the high points. At an hour long, this LP isn’t for the casual listener and the first couple of spins are overwhelming. There are inevitably some duds – Sleep On and Honey On Thigh are fine but just a little too insubstantial. King Of The Moles feels too much filler – unnecessarily padding things out with something that’s overfamiliar.
On the fifth or sixth listen, The Cellardyke Recording And Wassailing Society might finally click with those who are willing to stick with it. Its inviting atmosphere, the beautiful playing and gorgeous harmonies make for an approachable, if not wholly accessible, record. It is undoubtedly too long – three of four songs could have easily been chopped away from the running order. That’s not Yorkston’s style though. He is an individual who will, very quietly, make the albums that he wants to make, regardless of what audience they might find. It’s perfectly admirable and he almost gets away with it. With the long nights fast approaching, this might end up being the sonic equivalent of wrapping up with a comfy blanket.