James Yorkston & The Big Eyes Family Players - Folk Songs
It’s easy to think of James Yorkston in terms of the underdog. Whether that be in relation to his label mates, Arctic Monkeys, or the fancies of the Scottish gig-goer and record-buyer (Glasvegas! Pah!), you can take your pick. Of course, folk music isn’t the easiest sell these days, not unless it’s dressed prettily enough for Radio 2, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Yorkston is still a relatively obscure name. One suspects he prefers it this way. As he once spoke on 'Woozy With Cider', "In their cocaine-fuelled electronic cabarets, I’ll be the man at the bar drinking over-priced whisky."
Folk Songs, as the title suggests, finds Yorkston and The Big Eyes Family Players (a backing band chosen especially for this album after Yorkston was handed a CDr at a gig) tackling a set of traditional songs. Being a folk novice, I can’t comment on how much they deviate from previous versions, but it’s fair to say the arrangements mostly aren’t too fancy and there’s no evident desire to drag folk kicking and screaming into 2009. If there’s such a thing as "hardcore folk", this probably qualifies; suffice to say, those with a fear of concertinas, violins, recorders, unkempt beards, cardigans and a commitment to the acoustic should keep their distance.
Only really 'Thorneymoor Woods' surprises in its arrangement. Restrained and ominous with a constant clatter, the backing perfectly compliments the lyrics of what is a violent “poacher’s song” and surely not a favourite of the League Against Cruel Sports. 'I Went To Visit The Roses' also deserves a mention, pedal-steel guitar marking a subtle shift into country territory. Along with 'Hills Of Greenmoor' (another one not for LACS members), it probably represents Yorkston at his most charming.
Perhaps it’s respect for material crossed with gentle craft and Yorkston’s clear delivery that makes Folk Songs so enthralling. When you have songs like 'Little Musgrave' (a tale of infidelity and revenge), the less fuss, the better. How much you enjoy this album will depend on your willingness to embrace narratives depicting the harshness of life a few centuries ago. Nature, hunting, fair maidens, love, hard drinking, marching armies, murder: it’s all here.
Any self-respecting James Yorkston fan will want to pick up this three disc edition. Disc two, labelled Analogue Catalogue Sessions, is every bit as good as the main album. 'Old Maid' (about a girl destined to become, well, you guessed it...) and 'Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk' (about a beaten wife who dreams of going out and getting blootered as a warning to her husband) are indispensable. As is 'I Know My Love', which is somewhat more heart-warming and has a gorgeous tinkly rhythm. A number of the remaining tracks are alternate (often near a cappella) versions of those from Folk Songs. If there’s one major difference between the two CDs, it’s that Emma Smith’s accompanying vocals are far more prominent on the second.
Disc 3 is a DVD with footage of the Analogue Catalogue Sessions (most of it filmed in extreme close-up, so you, sadly, rarely get a sense of the band together) and some interviews. It’s the one you’ll probably play least.
Those partial to a single malt, a pint, a good story and a coal fire are sure to be enchanted by Folk Songs. James Yorkston may long remain the underdog, but this is as good an album as I’ve heard all year.