Since emerging confidently into the folk mainstream back in 2002 withhis sublime debut album Moving Up Country, Fife troubadour JamesYorkston has released a series of affable, accomplished yetprogressively less interesting records that have marked him out as anartist seemingly content with treading water. Almost too laid backand charmingly self-effacing, recent offerings like his 2009collaboration with the Big Eyed Family Players are invariablyimpeccably performed, but a chronic lack of dynamism means they havelargely slipped by unnoticed.
I Was A Cat From A Book finds Yorkston playing with a new bandcomprised of members of Lamb and The CinematicOrchestra, and his decision to join forces with edgier, morecontemporary musicians seems to have given the erstwhile diehardfolkie renewed impetus. Mostly recorded live in North Wales, itretains the best of Yorkston’s warmth and storytelling while at thesame time adding some much needed variation in texture.
A couple of years ago, as he prepared to take part in the FenceCollective’s annual Homegame mini-festival, Yorkston’s young daughterbecame gravely ill, forcing him to take a lengthy break from musicwhile he supported her recovery. This experience has clearly andunderstandably left its mark and songs like The Fire & the Flames andI Can Take All This paint a starkly honest picture of a worried,wounded father doing his best to cope in very difficult circumstances.
Despite the similar subject matter, the styles of these two pivotaltracks are very different, illustrating well the more diverse soundYorkston has been able to achieve on I Was A Cat From A Book. The Fire& the Flames, occurring at the midpoint of the album, is a hauntinglymaudlin, finger-plucked guitar-led lament reminiscent of the writer’sfellow Scot, the late great Bert Jansch, which appears to piercethe very heart of the emotional maelstrom Yorkston encountered. Incontrast, I Can Take All This, the closing cut, is equally poignantyet ends the journey with an element of hope, with Yorkstonproclaiming defiantly “I can take this all, just to keep you alive,just to laugh at your fears”, backed by rollicking guitars andscreeching, discordant strings.
The musical mood isn’t all stark and foreboding – in particular, JustAs Scared, a lovely lolloping jazzy tune, features delightfully perkyclarinets and some delicious girl/boy vocal interplay between Yorkstonand the similarly silver throated Jill O’Sullivan, and Spanish Ants,the kind of jaunty, lyrically quirky offering the singer hasspecialised in throughout his career. As ever, there’s nothing youcould really call a killer tune – the melodies remain meandering andfreeform rather than instantly accessible sing-along anthems – butthen Yorkston’s never likely to challenge Mumford & Sons in thecrowd pleasing stakes in any case.
As an overall package, there’s no doubt I Was A Cat From A Bookrepresents a significant return to form for James Yorkston. His musicis more inventive, instrumentally diverse and accessible than everbefore, arguably straying outside the realms of pure folk into theouter confines of indie-rock for the first time. It’s a welcome move;while it may lose Yorkston a few diehard fans, with the right exposurehe’ll gain new ones too.