James Yorkston: The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society

The veteran Scottish folksinger teams up with KT Tunstall and Hot Chip, yet remains his own singularly talented man.
James Yorkston
The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society

When you have a sound and talent as singular as James Yorkston’s, it makes sense that you wouldn’t try to reinvent yourself over the course of a career. With his 2002 debut Moving Up Country, the Scotsman introduced himself as a most contemporary folk singer. Though he mainly used traditional instrumentation and songwriting styles, he did not come across as a throwback at all. Rather, something about the cozy glow of his music, which at times seemed suspended in mid-air, and the wry, occasionally even ironic observations in his lyrics transcended the then-emerging new folk scene. He was a pure romantic, sure, but somehow it always made perfect sense that he had started out in a punk band (Miraclehead).

Over the course of 12 years and six studio albums, the shifts and changes in Yorkston’s music have been subtle ones. One way in which he has prevented his sound from becoming staid is his varied choice of producers. On his first three albums he worked with, respectively, Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins), Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), and Rustin Man (Talk Talk, Beth Gibbons). Now, after two self-produced efforts, The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society finds Yorkston hooking up with labelmate Alexis Taylor of synthpop band Hot Chip. But if you’re worried about Yorkston going all ’80s on you, fear not. Like his predecessors, Taylor slips in behind Yorkston and his band rather than overwhelming them. There are some electric guitars, effects, steelpans, and even a bit of what sounds like electronic drums. Really, though, the album is perfectly of a piece with Yorkston’s previous output.

The very title The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society is so homey and eccentric you could be forgiven for thinking it is the soundtrack to a new Wes Anderson film. Indeed, the album maintains the same intimate, unassuming, friends-gathered-in-a-room vibe Yorkston has cultivated throughout his career. Yet in some ways the album is less introverted than its immediate predecessor, I Was A Cat From A Book (2012), which dealt with Yorkston’s daughter’s struggle with serious illness. At 16 songs and an hour’s run time, Cellardyke is a sprawling effort by Yorkston’s standards. Though it mostly sticks to the floating, strummed acoustic ballads Yorkston is known for, it does include some deviations. Yorkston doesn’t exactly cut loose, but he does loosen up a bit.

He also gets a major assist from fellow Scot folksinger KT Tunstall. She lends her rich, earthy voice to all but a few of these songs. Mostly she harmonizes and adds texture in the background. On “The Blues You Sang”, a classic Yorkston track with its sighing, drawn-out chorus, she takes a verse and envelopes the song in a pastoral warmth in the process. Tunstall also adds to the old-timey harmonies on tracks like the rather jaunty “Fellow Man” and more reflective “Honey On Thigh”.

Yorkston does look outward on tracks like “Thinking of Kat”, a reflection on an old acquaintance, but his lyrics deal mainly with more personal, domestic concerns. “Fellow Man” and “King of the Moles” focus on parenthood. The sweeping “Great Ghosts” is the closest Yorkston comes to a pure pop song, acoustic guitars cascading into a bed of close-mic’d percussion. It is also a happy love song, though it is outnumbered by sad ones like “Embers” and “The Very Very Best”. One touching highlight is a love song of a different kind. “Broken Wave (A Blues for Doogie)” is a tribute to Yorkston’s late bassist Doogie Paul, who died from cancer in 2012. In another of those comforting, mood-lifting choruses, Yorkston in a voice just above a whisper promises, “I will remember you / As a man full of love / And not this broken wave.” Here, Yorkston captures the frustrating helplessness and eventual acceptance of looking on while a loved one dies, one life still in an everyday routine while another is about to end.

The most striking track on The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society, however, is the brilliant “Guy Fawkes’ Signature”. It’s an alternately hilarious and chilling, witty and dead-serious recounting of how a simple visit from an annoying yet well-meaning neighbor can lead to unexpectedly far-reaching trains of thought with deep implications. “I think of Guy Fawkes’ signature before and after torture,” Yorkston says, “What in the world he’d been through / To change his whole demeanor.” But by the time the track ends, Fawkes has been replaced by the narrator himself, grappling with how life has changed him over time. With Tunstall taking a few lines herself, it’s affecting in the same way a good Raymond Carver story is, and it’s not the first time a witty yet touching spoken-word track has stolen the show on a Yorkston album.

Of course, an entire album’s worth of spoken-word story-songs would probably suffer from diminishing returns. Still, one has to wonder whether, despite his way with a ballad, Yorkston is selling his greatest gift a bit short.

There is a bit of filler here, too, like the jump blues of “Sleep On”, and The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society won’t change the minds of those who have found Yorkston too ethereal all along. But for an artist whose strength is in modesty, Yorkston keeps finding ways to translate subtle changes into a bold, honest way forward.

RATING 7 / 10