We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
While trying to keep track of the espresso-dark slipcase containing James Yorkston and the Athletes’ Just Beyond the River, I keep shifting the mass of media on my desk to reveal the Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. On its cover is a motley band of ’60s gypsies, their faces either preternaturally serious or enigmatically grinning. It’s a blur of beads and floppy hats, long locks and bare trees. It reminds me of publicity shots of Fairport Convention, not long after Sandy Denny brought to the group her voice and her knowledge of the Cecil Sharp House folk archives: the one on the back of From Past Archives, say, which shows only seven of its collective 12 eyes unobscured by hair as dull-brown leaves blow about.
Funny how as you go farther back in time in these pictures—and thus closer to traditional folk—the seasons get earlier and earlier. The Irish street singer Margaret Barry, who began recording almost 15 years before the ISB, probably ought to be shown sneezing at the spring flowers, albeit picturesquely and with bucolic integrity. Yorkston’s music is often described as “autumnal,” and this adjective places him in the right season with regard to his Brit-folk lineage—at least in terms of style. Though the Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter cites Malagasy guitarist D’Gary and German experimentalists Can as major influences, his work hews closely to the mold of Joe Boyd’s late-’60s protégés Denny and, especially, Nick Drake: some blues-guitar bends here and a dash of bowed strings there, but mostly a rootsy, close-to-nature vibe.
But Yorkston, whose debut LP, Moving Up Country, came out just two years ago, is playing in the here and now, not the late ’60s. He has less innocence, perhaps (and definitely less hair), than his predecessors. Yet when he came to the fork in the forest path, he also took the road where irony doesn’t grow.
“I wanted it to be open and warm,” Yorkston said in an online interview about River. “I wanted it to sound like there were no effects used on it whatsoever.” The sudden sibilance on the opening track, “Heron,” is thus distracting, but it turns out to be made the old-fashioned way. Beginning with fingerpicked acoustic guitar, the song picks up soft piano chords and Yorkston’s hushed baritone early in its journey. It builds by accretion: Harmony vocal. Accordion. Bass. Cymbals. It’s the last instrument that makes for the oddly captivating hiss that nearly obscures a lyric I had to listen to three times to make out: “I sing like a baritone/Of some nonsense or other.”
OK, so maybe there is some irony to be plucked along that path. But the straightforwardness of Yorkston’s approach—and that of his band, the Athletes, described on their Web site as “a nice bunch of people who James met at different times in different Edinburgh pubs”—outpaces the snarky stuff. “Shipwreckers,” for example, parallels natural and emotional weather with an urgent instrumental setting that, wisely, matches the inner landscape, not the outer one: The tempo set by guitar, vocal, and cymbals—deftly played once again by the unsurnamed Faisal—is that of a tense heartbeat, the blood-pumping of someone who is realizing that the tide of love has turned. The lyrics are as economical as anything whittled clean by the folk tradition: “The storm hardly occurs when it got us back inside/Before midnight turned morning, we both realized/We needed alone/There’re moments in each life/And this was just one.” The next line, almost thrown away, hits the heart: “How many will you have?”
Yorkston’s voice, not a pretty thing, works in his favor. He shares with John Martyn, with whom he toured in 2000, and Drake an aura of frail, possibly damaged genius. There’s an almost manic flow of words and ideas in “Shipwreckers” and the similar but twangier “Banjo #1,” both of them songs of anger at loss. On the latter, Yorkston sings, “I’ve become an expert at the cutting remark/ You’ve become an expert at raising your guard.” An immediacy is palpable in both the delivery and that present perfect—another element that keeps this largely acoustic and often tenuously melodic enterprise from the dull gloom suggested by its scary-figurine cover art.
That quality is mirrored in one of River’s two traditional numbers, “Edward,” which Yorkston learned from the singing of Jean Ritchie. The track offers a stately, Anglo-folk intro worthy of Fairport—but one classed up mightily by Reuben no-last-name’s harpsichord, joining the acoustic guitars and double bass. The pace is slow, but the lyric jumps right into the action: “How came that blood on your shirt sleeve?” asks Yorkston, and the question and its ultimate consequences are as frightening as whatever violent incident brought them about.
The singer is generous with his Athletes throughout the album. “Banjo #1” features some gorgeous passages blending accordion and delicately picked banjo in modal harmonies; when you think things can’t get any more spine-tingling, banjoist Doogie hits a high grace note that adds Asian color. Doogie also gets to show off a bit on “Banjo #2,” which also includes bouzouki and hammered dulcimer. It’s the most American-sounding of the broguey Yorkston’s offerings, courtesy of its glowing major chords, but then again, it’s also got that most Celtic of instruments, the small pipes.
Anyone who knows what a set of those looks like will probably be pleased with Traditional No. 2, “The Snow It Melts the Soonest,” which most closely approximates the Fairport audience tapes I’ve got degrading in my closet. It starts like a tuneup, with a series of jagged accordion attacks coalescing into a drone backed by rock drums. Soon the acoustic guitarist seems to be jamming on “Mrs. Robinson” as the squeezebox player channels Richard Thompson’s three-chord devotional on “Calvary Cross.” It’s weird and wonderful and exhilarating even before the harmonium kicks in—and before Yorkston’s voice starts croaking the familiar tune, anyone who hasn’t read the track listing will be hard-pressed to guess where the thing is going. Another meditation on nature both earthbound and human, the song suits Yorkston’s body of work to a T. The man who’s “always wanted to be in a band that was a cross between Can & Planxty” should be pleased.
“I wanted every instrument to sound like itself, rather than a posh polished mess,” Yorkston said in that online interview. “I wanted it to be real.” In the folk world, of course, that last word is a loaded one, and Yorkston’s DIY-informed notion of what it means may not wash with the field-recording crowd. But no matter: Ultimately, Barry, Fairport, and the ISB didn’t need to stand in the fields to be, er, outstanding in their fields. Just Beyond the River may be just as improbable as those old photographs—but more important, it’s also just as indelible.CP