Caught by the River

The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society

7th September 2014

The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society
James Yorkston

Domino, out now

Review by Rob St. John

“My fear is I may transfer my fears to you, that I will pass down the nonsense passed down to me.” James Yorkston’s new album opens in fine, reflective fettle, with his craggy, almost-spoken voice telling seemingly time-worn words into your ear. Gradually joined by sweet sweeps of harmony from KT Tunstall and Johnny “Pictish Trail” Lynch over circular picking patterns on the guitar, the trio sing “I’m full of love for my fellow man” together in full voice (“Isn’t that what you’ve just heard me say?”, Yorkston later deadpans). This is a record which is at once warm and personal yet seemingly universal, with flashes of sharp wit and observation underlain by a lyrical honesty and openness.

This is perhaps most evident on the beautiful A Broken Wave, a tribute to double bassist Dougie Paul – an “Athlete” in Yorkston’s band – who sadly died in 2012. Here, the band sing “I will remember you, as a man full of charm, and not this broken wave”. The sea and surrounds seep through The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society – with the society’s HQ presumably somewhere in the small East Neuk fishing village in Fife where Yorkston and his family live.

For all the seemingly heavy themes – death, fatherhood, how a life should be lived – the record is never dour or earnest, instead infused with a wry sincerity and kindness – testament to Yorkston’s skill as a lyricist. The spoken Guy Fawkes’ Signature reprises the approach of his collaboration with Reporter on 2008’s Woozy with Cider and the tone of his 2011 tour diaries It’s Lovely to Be Here, a monologue over minimal, repetitive backing where his know-all small village neighbour asks the borderline absurd question, “Do you like real music, like Pussy Riot and Louis Armstrong?” and Yorkston replies “Sure, I like Billie Holliday, do be do be do”. Life in a teacup village recurs as Yorkston muses on the joys of fatherhood, building dams on the beach and “watching that one daft kestrel that we always see” on King of the Moles. And alongside these lighter moments, when there’s a chorus to be had, the band doesn’t hold back, with Feathers are Falling and Great Ghosts sticking firmly in the mind.

In truth, the CRAWS probably doesn’t exist, although the acronym had been used before by Yorkston, Lynch and Kenny Anderson – King Creosote – in the (recently dissolved and re-formed) Fence Collective as The Three Craws. And it’s the collaborative vocal interplay between Yorkston, Lynch and Tunstall that – along some extremely strong songwriting – puts this record up amongst Yorkston’s best. Indeed, Yorkston has suggested in interviews that this record was planned to be entirely a capella at one stage, but as it is the three vocals sit high and clear above everything else.

Alexis Taylor mans production duties with subtle aplomb, as a warm sonic pallette – Fender Rhodes, steel drum, vibraphone, assorted drum machines and (perhaps unexpectedly on a JY record) wah guitar – is treated with canny restraint. Jon Thorne’s double bass dips and plucks a steady and intuitive route through Yorkston’s rolling guitar – despite the minimal percussion, this is a record full of nagging, insistent rhythms – and Emma Smith’s double stopped violin swoons melodies out of the reflective, warm backdrop. This is a timeless record, not particularly tied to genre or fashion; instead a set of strong songs sung softly. Whilst Yorkston often sails through different collaborators, you can’t help but wish for the same cast to put together CRAWS pt. 2 before too long.

Buy a copy here.