Thursday, 26 April 2012

REVIEW: James Yorkston And The Athletes - Moving Up Country [Reissue]


*Originally published for The 405 (25/4/12)

2002. The birth of reality TV talent contests such as Pop Idol, number one singles from Daniel Bedingfield and Girls Aloud and the untimely death of The Clash's Joe Strummer. Little did I know as an oblivious 12 year old that among these musical events there was a burgeoning micro-indie record label and group of musicians called the Fence Collective. Founded by Kenny Anderson of King Creosote in 1997, Fence Collective was to later have the likes of such great artists as Lone Pigeon, Fran├žoise And The Atlas Mountains and a quietly confident singer-songwriter, James Yorkston, nestled in its arms.

In 2002, Yorkston (with musical backing from The Athletes) released his critically-acclaimed debut album, Moving Up Country under Domino Records and this year the label are marking its 10th anniversary with a reissue of the album; replete with bonus songs and Peel session recordings as part of a double CD/vinyl package.

Time and time again, Yorkston has been affiliated with folk music. This has been accelerated no less by releases of albums like Folk Songs (2009) but truth be told, he is a more general roots man; country, blues and folk can all be quite easily picked out on Moving Up Country (not to mention splices of gospel and even some jazz). It is the album's myriad of sound that won Yorkston his die-hard fans and has been pulling in new listeners ever since.

Album opener, 'In Your Hands', is a potent example of this. Deep accordion notes sit below Yorkston's imperfect but charming vocal, and a harmonica and a light blues guitar, among other instruments, caress the narrative about a day spent giving undivided attention to a lover. '6.30 Is Just Way Too Early' is similar in its domestic story-telling, "I find myself down the stairs/Lazy dog gives me the eye/And I drag our bones around the barns/And catch the morning light," but a stuttering and spluttering organ shifts the song from comfortable acoustics to sonic gospel terrains.

There is a timeless quality to the songs in Moving Up Country, like the rich acoustic that walks in hand with the soothing vocals and scratchy fiddles in 'St Patrick', or the fast-paced jazz piano, rippling snare and early rock 'n' roll jaunt of 'I Spy Dogs' – it feels like you have heard these songs before. The talent with which Yorkston and his Athletes revisit, explore and reinvent genres is astounding.

It is then barely excusable to downplay the albums' lead single, 'Moving Up Country' – the very song that caught the eye of John Peel and convinced John Martyn to take Yorkston on his full Winter tour in 2001 – but where songs like 'The Patient Song' worm their way into your ears with warped blues keys and bouncy reverb guitars, 'Moving Up Country's' obtrusive harmonica and repetitive melody just leaves you tired. Thankfully, this is not the case for the overwhelming majority of the songs on the double album and this is what makes it so rounded and impressive.

Disc two holds demos of some of Yorkston's finest songs on Moving Up Country, but it does suffer a little for the more basic production, as can often be expected with demos. The harmonies on 'The Patient Song' are less refined and the harmonica in '6.30 Is Just Way Too Early' is quite grating here, but it is strangely wonderful to hear how the kinetic energy of 'I Spy Dogs' used to be stored before it was unleashed later in its studio version.

Some of the bonus demo tracks like 'Worthy Souls' and 'My Distance Travelled' are truly enthralling; yawning slide guitars, grumbling double-bass and tinny, roll-snap drums dancing together in unrivalled freedom. Another strong contester from the bonus tracks is 'La Magnifica' with its burgeoning acoustics and plucked violin strings tiptoeing around the track's edges, but it is the 'Tender To The Blues' Peel recording that elevates itself above the rest. The descending string progression, melancholic harmonies and sinew-yanking minor notes sound just as, if not more, extraordinary live than on the original recording. The track's multifaceted texture is a true microcosm of James Yorkston and The Athletes' remarkable musical dexterity.

Moving Up Country is the kind of album that has and will continue to introduce people to styles of music that they thought they didn't like. Yorkston has an envious and somewhat confusing ability to pen songs that transcend genres, yet still beam his style from start to finish. The reissue is a treat for anyone who appreciates the difficulty of this; wants their hands on rarer Yorkston material; or is willing to open their mind to a variety of musical styles that sound as timeless and as a fresh as they did a decade ago.

9/10

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