JAMES YORKSTON

 
 

Welcome to The Route to the Harmonium. The territory is both old and new. The sounds are both familiar and fresh. This is Yorkston’s world and could be nowhere else in music.


It was almost entirely recorded by James himself, in the small Scottish fishing village of Cellardyke. James’ studio is a ramshackle old loft space, once used to repair fisherman’s nets. Later, it was a penny library. And now this tiny sanctuary is stuffed to the gills with recording equipment and antique old instruments – nyckelharpa, concertina, Dulcitone, autoharp, Bookorder, harmonium…


JY - Having these decades old, hand-built instruments with their unique old sounds… I find it a luxury. A comfort. And they’re not exactly something I could download from an App…


Upon completion of these Cellardyke sessions, James called up his old collaborator David Wrench, the mixer and producer who has worked with such artists as Caribou, Jungle, FKA Twigs, David Byrne, The XX, Glass Animals, Frank Ocean and Goldfrapp, amongst others. Yorkston and Wrench have worked together on James’ albums since 2003 and it was always going to be David that James asked to help co-produce, mix and make sense of James’ hours of recordings. A few friends were then handpicked to lightly augment these songs - and here we have the result – The Route to the Harmonium.


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In 2015-17, James Yorkston spent a reinvigorating period touring the world and recording as one third of Yorkston/Thorne/Khan. Here, he was part of a collaborative, semi-improvising trio, channelling sounds ranging from Indian sarangi music to Mingus jazz, a startling ‘confluence of currents’ reflected in the title of their 2017 album, Neuk Wight Delhi All Stars. Throughout this time, between shows, Yorkston would return to his studio in Cellardyke to work on new solo works. Recent collaborations directly informed his process. ‘Playing with YTK has refreshed everything I’ve done,’ he says, and the proof of that is The Route to the Harmonium – his most coherent, confident record yet. In terms of the sound, the man himself dominates. ‘Around 90% of it is played by me,’ he says, recalling the recording process. ‘I was loving being in that old room again, no distractions, just getting back to the heart of the music.’


It’s the sound of home, of found peace. The Route to the Harmonium (or, ‘the search for harmony’ says Yorkston, always looking for wordplay) is intensely personal. Listen closely and you can imagine him piecing it together. Overlaying vocal and guitar tracks. Layering with nyckelharpa, the distinctive Swedish stringed instrument given to him by a friend. Even that is typical of Yorkston’s process. Friends and family, past and present, those that have remained and those who have left – they swim all over his songs.   


JY - There’s a line in track six, ‘My mouth ain’t no Bible’, that kinda sums up a big part of this rekkid –


So, what happened? Well, my mind just cracked, but unlike oor Lenny Cohen, no light got in, just dark…”


And although that line isn’t me speaking – The song is a cut-up piece and I’m putting words into the mouth of a dear departed friend – it’s a spirit that does run through The Route to the Harmonium... For when a friend jumps ship, or is otherwise taken, it’s a haymaker to the gut, you know?


 


 ‘Like Bees to Foxglove’ hints at that spirit. ‘Time is so easy, if you have it all’ is the slow, subtle refrain that’s sang out either side of Tom Arthurs’ mournful trumpet line. ‘All the common sense there is/cannot save a man from this’ sings Yorkston. ‘Some people I love made bad decisions/ through their fears or their addictions/ but like bees to foxglove they return’.


Arthurs, who Yorkston met at an improvised session for Radio 3’s Late Junction, is one of few collaborators here, though his trumpet is used across several songs in a way that also feels coherent, consistent. Like an echo, ringing on, drawing together the album with that exquisite, memorializing sound.


JY – After the Late Junction session, I had Tom in the back of my mind as a potential musical ally… As the album progressed, I suspected his trumpet sound would be a perfect fit, and thus it was.


The most intriguing collaborators though, are James’ old band – The Athletes – who appeared with James on every album until 2008’s ‘When The Haar Rolls In’. Here, in 2018/19, James has brought back to life two old jam sessions that were originally released on an EP by Fence Records in 2005, reworking and adding to them, before layering with his distinct spoken burr. One of those instrumentals appears here, utterly transformed, as ‘My Mouth Ain’t No Bible’. (And, curiously, the original title of that long-ago song was ‘The Route to the Harmonium.’) As always, paying attention is rewarded. You can hear Yorkston’s songs talking to each other.


JY – It made sense having The Athletes here. Not just musically, but especially so in relation to Doogie, who played bass with us – Doogie died in 2012 and he’s referenced of course, here and there, within the album… I had fond memories, listening to the sound of the band back in the studio, blaring out of my speakers …


‘My Mouth Ain’t No Bible’ is one of three thrilling spoken-word pieces on this record. It thrums insistently, military snares punching away, Yorkston’s delivery interplaying with that old EP’s backing track. Though full of vim and wit, humour and playfulness, it’s also exploring that same theme present in the more contemplative songs. It’s a Burroughs-style cut up of two competing voices, this time of Yorkston and a lost musician friend, ‘a spare hand, a hired hand, a deck hand’ who was unable to prevent self-destruction.  Yorkston’s great skill is to be able to portrait a character, a life, in a single line, and that’s on display here, repeatedly, as it is in another spoken-word piece, ‘The Wars of Irish Independence.’


This song is not directly political, though politics and religion are both on the receiving end of Yorkston’s tongue. ‘I was not caught up in the wars of Irish Independence,’ he deadpans, at the thrum of the song’s opening. ‘Except by the noose of a religion, hung around the neck of a gullible schoolboy.’ Elsewhere, the song explores his many boyhood summers in West Cork, looking back on what he calls ‘the dream of childhood’. It’s first person, hypnotic, and sounds like non-fiction – though listeners would be wise to avoid literal interpretations. The playful, the imaginative, are always present. ‘When I was a child, I met the devil in Ireland/Did I ever tell you that my love?/It may just explain my transitory ways’. In that line, many possibilities lurk. Elsewhere, Yorkston utilises childlike descriptions – ‘the great masked men’ – reflecting a childlike view of the world. To label this something as narrow as ‘truth’ would be reductive.


Listeners familiar with classic Yorkston material like ‘The Lang Toun’ (from Moving Up Country, 2002) or ‘Woozy with Cider’ (from The Year of the Leopard, 2006) may recognize the ghosts of those songs across The Route to the Harmonium. For me, the one with the strongest echoes is ‘Yorkston Athletic’, the third spoken-word piece here, and the second which was originally a James Yorkston and the Athletes instrumental jam. The new incarnation focuses on what it feels like to ‘cast the line, because this was our time’. Childhood and youth, those summers in West Cork, ‘just family, just brothers’ – that sense of adventure hums throughout this piece, told in the voice of the boy who believes ‘nothing is changed/nothing will change’. Later in life, you know that’s not true. But that only gives greater value to those long-gone days. Remembering them, and those you’ve shared life with, those who leave and those who remain, is the strongest thread running through these affecting, extraordinary songs. Hold them close, lean in and listen. You won’t be disappointed.


by Rodge Glass, October 2018


 


With:


 


Jon Thorne – Double Bass


Sarah Scutt – Vocals and flute


John Ellis – Piano and organ


Tom Arthurs - Trumpet