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James Yorkston and the Athletes

Just Beyond the River

(Domino; US: 16 Nov 2004; UK: 20 Sep 2004)

The Last Troubadour

Scotland’s James Yorkston is onto something special. His 2002 debut, Moving Up Country, was one of 2002’s best albums, full of stark, pastoral folk songs and romantic brooding. The title track of the following year’s Someplace Simple EP was Yorkston’s most charming composition to date. Now, with Just Beyond the River, he’s delivered his coziest set of songs yet. Make no mistake-like the best storytellers, Yorkston isn’t afraid to face the darker aspects of life and love; if anything, Just Beyond the River is less summery than anything he’s done before. But these songs crackle with the warmth of a fireside on a rainy autumn day.

Yorkston is best at creating vignettes of intimate conversations and chance encounters that capture the delicate moments when relationships begin—or end. The bliss that was evident on Moving Up Country is here tempered by a dose of cold, hard realism, if not fatalism. “You excel at the ambush / I believe in you girl / And I want you”, Yorkston sings at the close of “Heron”, Just Beyond the River‘s first and most beautiful song. Gently picked guitar builds into a surging swell of accordion, and then everything goes quiet again. In a subtle way, the music mimics Yorkston’s own ambivalence.

“Surf Song” is another highlight, finding a sense of peace in the moment, however fleeting it may be, as Yorkston and his new companion tell of their lives before they met. “You said you would not hear”, Yorkston says, “Of my life with some lady / who had cut deep in my heart / And you’d barely even scratch me / But I smiled and said, ‘It’s early days’”. The words ring strikingly true to anyone who knows how easy it is to be idealistic when love is new. “We Flew Blind” and the six-minute “Hotel” touch on similar themes. The latter, with banjo and acoustic guitar lightly nudging one another through a cycling rhythm, is so evocative you can almost see said hotel room, curtains and emotions fluttering as morning light creeps through the window.

Not all of Just Beyond the River is so gentle. “Shipwreck” picks up the tempo and the sense of urgency, while “Banjo #1” is particularly disturbing and wrought with tension: “You told me you had slept with a quantity of men / You told me not all in a voluntary sense… You’re lucky you never knew me / As an angry young man / I’d raise my voice and holler / At the slightest of things”. Again, the music mirrors the words, this time with a stop-start arrangement and dissonant fiddle solo. The equally downbeat “Edward” is a Yorkston interpretation of a traditional song about murder.

The production by current hot property Kieren Hebden (Four Tet, Beth Orton), is appropriately intimate. Whereas Moving Up Country had its jaunty moments, Just Beyond the River sticks to sparse, listing melodies and arrangements. The Athletes achieve emotional and musical impact with just banjo, accordion, fiddle and light percussion to back up Yorkston’s acoustic strumming. Everything is closely-mic’d, and a headphone listen reveals bits of hushed breathing, creaking stools and tapping feet.

Like all singer-songwriters of distinction, Yorkston has his own manner of phrasing, giving the impression that all of the songs are related to one another. Any thoughts of self-absorbtion vanish in light of his heavily-accented, matter-of-fact delivery, which suggests that he’d be just as happy singing his songs to his trusted dog. If there’s any complaint, it’s that too often his voice doesn’t quite stand out from the mix.

Overall, Just Beyond the River finds James Yorkston creating music that is steeped in deep tradition and full of the comfort that comes with honest self-expression. Call it aural comfort food; it’s good for the soul.

John Bergstrom has been writing various reviews and features for PopMatters since 2004. He has been a music fanatic at least since he and a couple friends put together The Rock Group Dictionary in third grade (although he now admits that giving Pat Benatar the title of "first good female rocker" was probably a mistake). He has done freelance writing for Trouser Pressonline, Milwaukee's Shepherd Express, and the late Milk magazine and website. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and two kids, both of whom are very good dancers.

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