James Yorkston - The Year of the Leopard

"Yorkston sees himself as part of a different tradition – he sees himself as working in a similar way to people like Can and Scott Walker, people who don't so much blend and merge genres as smash them to pieces and leave music that cannot be categorised. I'm not sure from the evidence of Yorkston's three albums that I'd put him in such a tradition (and can there be a category of the uncategorisable?) "

James Yorkston – The Year of the Leopard


 


James Yorkston's third album continues in a similar vein to 2004's Just Beyond the River.  As that was acoustic and intimate, honest and heartfelt, so too is The Year of the Leopard. The (relatively) polished, and at times boisterous, feel of Yorkston's debut (Moving Up Country) feels ever more distant; spontaneity and simplicity seem to be the watchwords now. This time around Yorkston has Paul Webb (aka Rustin Man) to produce and the most obvious difference is that The Year of the Leopard has a much warmer sound than the somewhat Spartan Just Beyond the River. This may be because there is a greater emphasis on woozy brass backing (along with the usual acoustic guitars, violins, accordions, brushed drums and so on).


 


The songs all proceed in an unhurried manner – immersing yourself in these songs is much like slowly slipping into a warm bath. The pace remains relaxed throughout the album and solos are notable by their absence. If the sound is a continuation from earlier work then so too are the themes of love and loss. Summer Song opens the album and Yorkston's voice has rarely sounded so gentle and frail. Backed initially by an acoustic guitar Yorkston is eventually joined by accordion and clarinet. Yorkston plays the clarinet himself; its interventions are usually brief and somewhat hesitant. Occasionally, when the songs are at their most effusive, one is reminded of Robert Wyatt's recent work. It should be noted that whilst the athletes are still providing the backing their name seems to have been dropped from the band title. Which is a shame.


 


The title track features Jenny Casino (of HMS Ginafore and a member, like Yorkston, of the wonderful Fence Collective) and is gently devastating. Steady As She Goes and Brussels Rambler are the most muscular songs on the album and both actually have beats: the drums are brushed on most of the songs. Yorkston basically talks his way through Steady As She Goes and it is noticeable that he has chosen to use (where possible) his first vocal takes. None of the tracks are duds and songs such as I Awoke and Us Late Travellers unfurl slowly and reveal their charms over time.


 


The song that stands apart from the other is Woozy With Cider. This is a spoken word confessional. It details Yorkston's hopes and fears, his alienation from city life and his dislike of superficial city movers and shakers. It's an odd song in that it veers between engaging self-deprecation and the somewhat less engaging self-pity. And anyway – what connection has the person narrating this song to Yorkston himself? The losers and bums that Tom Waits sings about are clearly inventions: one of the interesting things about Yorkston is that the autobiographical content of the songs is never clear.


 


Maybe this is because Yorkston wants to be seen as a singer songwriter. At least, that is preferable to him than being labelled a folk singer. He probably likes labels as little as I do but I suspect that he finds the label of a 'folk' artist more constraining that I would find it. I could label Six Organs of Admittance and Sunburned Hand of the Man as folk artists (should I need to) and they certainly don't fit into the conservative idea of folk artists. It's probably a question of how you look at things – I'd much rather be labelled a folk singer than a singer songwriter: the latter I associate not so much with the Nick Drakes of this world (say) but the purveyors of ersatz emotion; the dreadfully earnest and the culturally reactionary. I'd rather eat my own legs than listen to Jack Johnson, or whatever he is called.


 


It is also easy to see why he is labelled as a folk artist. Look at the instruments on the albums: acoustic guitar, concertina, accordion, violin, banjo. The last two albums are both critical of city life and Just Beyond the Sea is redolent with images of the land and the sea. Yorkston sees himself as part of a different tradition – he sees himself as working in a similar way to people like Can and Scott Walker, people who don't so much blend and merge genres as smash them to pieces and leave music that cannot be categorised. I'm not sure from the evidence of Yorkston's three albums that I'd put him in such a tradition (and can there be a category of the uncategorisable?) but I do understand that Yorkston wants to avoid being pigeonholed and wants to reach as wide an audience as possible. And he deserves a big audience: he makes music that is as simple as it is beautiful, as intelligent as it is personal. Labels, as ever, be damned.


 


Words: Chris Dawson