James Yorkston review – a bumper harvest of witty wassailing

Dingwalls, London
James Yorkston’s new Cellardyke album of melancholy folk gains in charm and humour when played live with his Scottish musician friends

The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society does not come as advertised. The eighth album from Fife’s alt-folk mainstay James Yorkston, played in full tonight alongside fellow Fence Collective Scots KT Tunstall and The Pictish Trail’s Johnny Lynch, it features few songs which holly-hatted men made largely of sideburn might sing in orchards with a bucket of muddy cider swill. This is melancholy folk constructed from sea-foam arpeggios, dolorous double-bass, snowflake violin lines and the sort of profound Celtic loneliness you can only feel in a misty glen at dawn. Nor is TCRAWS an isolationist Scottish folk supergroup that suggests news of the “no” vote hasn’t yet reached Fife - when the album’s producer Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip takes to the keyboard and adds ice-crisp vocals, it sounds more like a veneration of Better Together.

What’s more, TCRAWS live isn’t half as forlorn as on record. Yorkston tempers these Bon Iver-ish songs of foiled romance and wintry pastoral isolation with banter worthy of the Edinburgh fringe. He jokes about God telling him to play some old stuff, admits that the wistful Honey On Thigh is about semen and reels off a meandering anecdote about playing golf with a stranger that ends with the line: “Do you not recognise me? I’m Terry fucking Wogan.” His irrepressible wit invades the songs too: spoken-word internal monologue Guy Fawkes’ Signature, adorned with twinkling steel drum by Fimber Bravo, wanders Joyce-like from Japanese fighting dogs to Pussy Riot.

Even the most heartbreaking moments are leavened with comedy – the taut emotion of Broken Wave, a stunning tribute to his bassist Doogie Paul who died from cancer in 2012 aged 40, is dispelled by a story of Doogie leaving the remains of a chicken curry in Yorkston’s glove-box; while Thinking About Kat, recalling a heroin addict who visited St Andrews to get clean, is played in a key Yorkston claims makes him sound “less Johnny Cash, more Jimmy Somerville”. By the end they’re doing heartfelt covers of Erasure’s A Little Respect and Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, and we’re wassailing on the inside. A hearty harvest.


Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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