Since emerging confidently into the folk mainstream back in 2002 with his sublime debut album Moving Up Country, Fife troubadour James Yorkston has released a series of affable, accomplished yet progressively less interesting records that have marked him out as an artist seemingly content with treading water. Almost too laid back and charmingly self-effacing, recent offerings like his 2009 collaboration with the Big Eyed Family Players are invariably impeccably performed, but a chronic lack of dynamism means they have largely slipped by unnoticed.
I Was A Cat From A Book finds Yorkston playing with a new band comprised of members of Lamb and The Cinematic Orchestra, and his decision to join forces with edgier, more contemporary musicians seems to have given the erstwhile diehard folkie renewed impetus. Mostly recorded live in North Wales, it retains the best of Yorkston’s warmth and storytelling while at the same time adding some much needed variation in texture.
A couple of years ago, as he prepared to take part in the Fence Collective’s annual Homegame mini-festival, Yorkston’s young daughter became gravely ill, forcing him to take a lengthy break from music while he supported her recovery. This experience has clearly and understandably left its mark and songs like The Fire And 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 pivotal tracks are very different, illustrating well the more diverse sound Yorkston has been able to achieve on I Was A Cat From A Book. The Fire And The Flames, occurring at the midpoint of the album, is a hauntingly maudlin, finger-plucked guitar-led lament reminiscent of the writer’s fellow Scot, the late great Bert Jansch, which appears to pierce the very heart of the emotional maelstrom Yorkston encountered. In contrast, I Can Take All This, the closing cut, is equally poignant yet ends the journey with an element of hope, with Yorkston proclaiming defiantly “I can take this all, just to keep you alive, just to laugh at your fears”, backed by rollicking guitars and screeching, discordant strings.
The musical mood isn’t all stark and foreboding – in particular, JustAs Scared, a lovely lolloping jazzy tune, features delightfully perky clarinets and some delicious girl/boy vocal interplay between Yorkston and the similarly silver throated Jill O’Sullivan, and Spanish Ants, the kind of jaunty, lyrically quirky offering the singer has specialised in throughout his career. As ever, there’s nothing you could really call a killer tune – the melodies remain meandering and freeform rather than instantly accessible sing-along anthems – but then Yorkston’s never likely to challenge Mumford & Sons in the crowd pleasing stakes in any case.
As an overall package, there’s no doubt I Was A Cat From A Book represents a significant return to form for James Yorkston. His music is more inventive, instrumentally diverse and accessible than ever before, arguably straying outside the realms of pure folk into the outer 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 exposure he’ll gain new ones too.