James Yorkston - The Route to Harmonium - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

James Yorkston - The Route to Harmonium

by Bill Golembeski Rating:9 Release Date:2019-02-22
James Yorkston - The Route to Harmonium
James Yorkston - The Route to Harmonium

This is an intensely quiet and a quietly intense authentic modern Scottish folk record.

You know, Brian Eno had Music for Airports. Well, this is Music for Cooking Meals. More about that later.

But for Hors D’ oeuvres (name-checking the song from Roy Harper’s brilliant Stormcock rather than the customary restaurant requirement): yes, indeed, the very first song, “Your Beauty Could Not Save Your Soul,” evokes the very best of (the very same) Roy Harper in his ultra-sensitive mode as in songs like “Forever,” “Commune,” or even “When the Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease.”

“The Irish Wars of Independence” is a world away from the small Scottish village in which this album was recorded. But emotions bridge impassioned truth. This is a spoken word/chorus sung/Irish piped soul search song inspired by James’s youthful memories of West Cork.  It’s also a work of art.

“Like Bees to a Foxglove” returns to a lovely folk format. The song bleeds its melody, while a sympathetic trumpet sings in harmony like an ECM jazz record. Again, the quiet beauty of Roy Harper comes to mind. And that sensitivity continues with “The Blue of the Thistle.” Yes, this is very modern yet very vintage folk music. Scottish landscape is painted in a lovely and languid Robert Burns sort of way.

Now, “My Mouth Ain’t No Bible” is from another universe. Apparently, it’s a conversation that “puts words into the mouth of a dear departed friend.”  It’s weirdly wonderful. Percussion pounds, keyboards frame the tune, and the spoken word vocal is a quick cadence stream-of-conscience-everything-about-the-world (even mentioning the great Michael Chapman) sound collage that pleads for some sort of understanding in a world that will never grant that understand. It’s a stunning bit of music.

Hamlet comes to mind.

Or, perhaps, Dylan.

But, back to the Music for Cooking Meals. You know, I talked with a young couple in a record store and simply asked them why they were buying vinyl.

They said it was authentic.

I said, well, sure, but vinyl isn’t portable. You can’t listen while running or driving in a car.

They simply said that it was great to spin a record while cooking a meal.

In a weird and very modern (or may I say Millennialistic) way, that’s a nice recipe for a quiet evening.

And this record, just like a wonderful and very authentically cooked meal, makes complete melodic sense because the album really does simmer with nice acoustic spices.

But, once again, back to the Hors D’ oeuvres for the old vinyl folk-singer people: there is certainly that gentle Roy Harper vibe all over this album, but there are piano-based pieces like “The Village I Have Known My Entire Life” and the cinematic “Shallow” that evoke the drama of Ralph McTell’s tunes like “Sylvia” or “Naomi.” In fact, this album reminds me of my first listening to McTell’s album Easy and wondering about all the fuss in Melody Maker’s folk section. But then, after repeated spins, that fuss became a lovely listen of patient sounds. This is music just like that. And, (now I could be wrong) but “Oh Me, Oh My” sounds like a tribute to Nick Drake. The guitar is delicate and distant, while the vocals haunt a melody, and the vibrations simply overwhelm the discourse of the song, like a spotlight that’s never worthy of the artist.

But to be fair, this album holds its own weight when matched to the greats from those bed-sitter days. “Brittle” and “Solitary Islands All” are dreamy and beautiful. Then in juxtaposition, “Yorkston Athletic” is another intense spoken word trip that is very new, very hip, very odd, and filled with double bass, organ, trumpet, and a bit of the cacophony that can be generated while recording in the small Scots town of Cellardyke. This is deep stuff.

The last song, “A Footnote to an Epitaph” is a fairly jaunty final punctuation mark with trumpet, piano, and a vocal that deflates much of the previous intensity. That’s a nice way to say farewell, or perhaps, bid a quick adieu.

So, The Route to the Harmonium (which is “the search for peace”) is an album that plays with its own quietly intense credence and stirs its sound with all the authentic and very organic vegetables of a great home-cooked meal. And, as the vinyl vibrates with some sort of purity, a purity that is important to all the young record buyers, it also spins against the current grain and pleads its case for emotion, patience, and quiet melody, just like great music did once upon a time. And that is, as always, a very nice thing to do.

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