“His dramas are conveyed in his words, and the band’s barely perceptible changes in intensity, rather than crowd pleasing theatrics.” – Dara Higgins on James Yorkston‘s new album I Was A Cat From A Book.
I stopped listening to singer-songwriters a while ago. New ones that is. Simply because there’s nothing new to be learned, I thought. It’s all the same, isn’t it? Few chords, some players tapping away in the background, whiny lyrics about women who shunned you when you were uncool. These days it’s even worse, with new singers sounding like warbling birds during mating season, or do that overly intense emoting, like having a really, really important shit. Also, crucially, isn’t this music for girls? Girls and blokes who want to impress girls. Standing in the crowd at some boutique festival, with a purple bruise spreading across the sky, holding each other and swaying slightly as the breeze could take you at any moment, while a tousle locked lyre strummer goes on about how the clouds are metaphors for how unfree we actually are. Troubadours, we call them, with nary a hint of irony.
Thusly, I approached James Yorkston’s newest album, the nth in his career so far, I Was A Cat From A Book with some trepidation. First impressions are that it sounds great. The band (not The Athletes this time out, apparently, but a collection of Lambchop and Cinematic Orchestra players), are in fine fettle, the wailing, Ellis-esque violins, fat double bass notes decaying, and the softly, tightly played drums, sound incredibly compact. All along there’s the rise and fall of piano. The opener, Catch, displays all these elements, one after the other, as they build upon the plucked guitar and Yorkston’s voice, not quite the important-pooing, nowhere near the warbling superciliousness of some. The collaborative singing of Jill Sullivan adds extra nuance, where needed.
While his voice fails to convince on Border Song, a slightly raucous, up tempo word fest, it feels more at home among the plucking, and lovely, swelling strings of This Line Says. The Fire and the Flames is another mournful number, building up among the bulging bass notes and tapping of cymbals, hinting at something darker within the lyrics. Again, it’s in the muted, held back moments where he shines. Spanish Ants is another wordfest, you won’t be singing along to this one, but it boasts a neat little instrumental interlude, as a counter to the prosaic verse. I Can Take This All, closes the album with a defiant slew of abuse at mortality, backed by a semi-discordant romp, played as if the band knew this was the last take and there was booze waiting for them.
Overall, this lovely sounding album, with the stand out moments being the quieter, more intimate ones. It lacks drama, which in the singer-songwriter genre is a good thing, because that kind of drama is usually an unearned artifice, using a series of caterwauls to impersonate intensity. Yorkston’s emotions are well marshalled, even when he’s writing about things that have clearly affected him. His dramas are conveyed in his words, and the band’s barely perceptible changes in intensity, rather than crowd pleasing theatrics. Just simply nice songs, nicely recorded, and played right nice. It’s nice. In a genre of over bearing, pontificating poo-faced warblers, that’s pretty good.