Uneven though it may be, James Yorkston’s fourth album Roaring The Gospel is a ragbag containing occasional scraps of cloth of gold. The songs are all in the folk/alt.country vein (perhaps it’s time to create a genre called Caledonia, a Celtic equivalent to Americana?).
There is always a quirky appeal to listening to the bits a performer couldn’t quite fit in elsewhere, and here Yorkston, who has built himself a quiet reputation as a singer-songwriter through many years of again, quietly experimental work as part of Fife’s Fence Collective, demonstrates his wilder and less controlled side as well as his wistful one.
The album starts with A Man With My Skills, in which the singer anticipates to a bobbing tune the return of a girl he used to fancy, but among the hope is the realisation that now “she’s a girl who’s been around the houses”. The foregrounded drumming gives the song a hard edge in contrast to the gentleness of the double vocal. The same vocal technique adds depth to his cover of Blue Bleezin Blind Drunk, shot through with heavy-hearted weariness.
His backing band, The Athletes, switch from bouzouki to harmonium to clarinet to carry the melodies as Yorkston’s voice rasps and lifts, sweet on the folk-influenced tracks like Someplace Simple and Seven Streams, jagged at the edges and tinged with weariness on others like his version of the traditional ballad Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk.
His instinct to seek the more unusual path is showcased by his cover of Tim Buckley‘s Song To The Siren. This Mortal Coil produced a drifting, dreamlike electronic version back in the ’80s, and it would have been easy for Yorkston to record a very straight version. Instead it is by far the most musically interesting track on the album, strident strings meandering all over the place while Yorkston takes equal liberties with the melody.
Some of the tracks strike me as slight – Blue Madonnas, with its rather dull banjo, and Sleep Is The Jewel, which unsuccessfully brings together rather nasal bluegrass close harmony with brisk drumming and pealing guitars.
The overall atmosphere is distinctly laid back, which reaches a peak on Are You Coming Home Tonight, where clarinet creates a sense of effortlessness, rising over piano and somewhat pedestrian drums. Roaring The Gospel is the sort of album that doesn’t want to make a fuss, an album of understated tunes and mildly ironic lyrics, swaying between musical invention and traditional structures (sometimes within the same song; see how The Lang Toun develops from traditional Celtic drone into a much more experimental guitar solo). Roaring The Gospel won’t be remembered as Yorkston’s best album, but for fans it offers some very interesting insights.