Movin’ Up Country, the 2002 debut album from James Yorkston and the Athletes, remains one of the best folk records of the century so far. Playful, fluent and with just the right balance of tightly honed songwriting and laid back camp fire conviviality, it established front man Yorkston as a name to watch over the years ahead.
Since then, the Scot has released a steady stream of albums – both solo and with the Athletes or the Big Eyes Family Players – combining his own compositions with interpretations of traditional material. He’s also written a book – It’s Lovely to be Here: The Touring Diaries of a Scottish Gent, a whimsical take on life as a touring musician. Yet throughout this period, there has been an underlying sense of an artist happy to work within his comfort zone, meandering amiably rather than striking out boldly to explore new territory.
It’s therefore a very welcome surprise to hear Everything Sacred, Yorkston’s new collaboration with award winning Delhi sarangi player and classical singer Suhail Yusuf Khan and Jon Thorne, best known as the double bass player with Lamb, the trip-hop and jazz influenced Mancunian duo who enjoyed considerable success in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Thorne has been working with Yorkston for several years and Khan has appeared on stage with him when schedules have allowed, so the trio always hoped to record an album at some stage.
We should be thankful that they got round to it because, for the most part, Everything Sacred is a delight. One of the characteristics of Yorkston’s work has always been its unhurried pace and opening track Knochentanz, clocking in at a sprawling 13 and a half minutes, is certainly not what one would call a short and sharp introduction. That’s to its credit though, as there’s a lot of very interesting stuff going on here. Starting off with just Yorkston’s delicately strummed guitar and Thorne’s languorous bass, they’re then joined by Khan’s beautifully elegant sarangi – the most distinctive, expressive ingredient throughout the record. The tempo builds almost imperceptibly for almost eight shimmering minutes before we are treated to Khan’s soaring vocals for the first time. It’s a wonderful tapestry of sound, with every element intricately woven.
A cover of Ivor Cutler’s Little Black Buzzer fares a little less well. The ornate, atmospheric North Indian musical backdrop still sounds great, but there’s something very incongruous about lyrics like “my bum is cold and my face is white” juxtaposed against such a rich, dramatic setting. Thankfully, the trio are back on track with a serene cover of Lal Waterson’s Song For Thirza, with Yorkston’s mellow voice and acoustic guitar taking centre stage. The meditative, mournful compositions Broken Wave and the title track (written and sang by Thorne) may be a reflection on the tragic passing of Athletes double-bassist Doogie Paul, who died in 2012 aged just 40. On both, the understated sarangi playing and singing by Khan provide a suitably melancholy counterpoint to the heartfelt lyrics. Final track Blue Jumped The Goose is a lovely, instrumental only end to the album, with the three key players accompanying one another on what feels like a slow, blissful glide down an Indian river at sunset.
Rather like Bat For Lashes‘ Natasha Khan’s excellent Sexwitch project last year, Everything Sacred is a great example of a British artist stepping into the ‘world music’ arena and finding a groove that really works. Although occasionally lacking focus (unsurprising, since large chunks were apparently improvised) it is a quietly mesmerising piece of work that breathes new life into Yorkston’s career.