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When the Haar Rolls In

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Album Review

Scottish songwriter James Yorkston and his backing band the Athletes are well known to critics and rabid club and concert-going audiences in the British Isles. For a while, Yorkston was a genuine cult figure; he entered the musical scene almost with a whisper as a member of the Fence Collective, a loose knit group of artists who include King Creosote, the Aliens, Beta Band, and KT Tunstall. Yorkston, whose music is rooted deeply in the folk and Celt traditions, is a formalist, not a strict traditionalist. His first single caught the ear of the late John Peel, and upon release of his debut album, Moving Up Country in 2002, many other critics' as well. He's issued two other acclaimed proper studio albums since then — Just Beyond the River (2004) and the stripped to the bone The Year of the Leopard (2006). A rarities and B-sides collection titled Roaring the Gospel appeared in 2007.

Where The Year of the Leopard featured Yorkston moving into the starkest and darkest territory of his career, his fourth album When the Haar Rolls In sees a return to an earlier, lusher sound. Concertinas, mandolins, xylophones, clarinets, piano, hand percussion, guitars, and double basses all beautifully illumine his halting baritone. The songs unapologetically indulge his love for artists such as Bert Jansch, John Martyn, and the Watersons (Norma and Mike appear as backing vocalists on the album's lone cover, a gorgeous version of Lal Waterson's "Midnight Feast"); Brit-folk legends Olly Knights and Marry Gilhooly also appear. Yet Yorkston sounds like no one but himself — ever. He is able to evoke the trace and promise of British Isles folk without any strict imitation. When the Haar Rolls In — which refers to the dense fog that comes in from the East Neuk of Fife, the place in Scotland Yorkston come from — contains eight new songs that evoke picaresque notions of distance, travel, endings, journeys, and memory. On "Tortoise Regrets Hare," the protagonist speaks to a woman he's known and loved before, but who is married to another. The words between them are spoken in terms of place, reminiscence, and the impossibility of their individual and collective presents — still they try. The rhyme scheme on the drenched-in-regret "Temptation" is odd-metered, falling toward old-school Scot poetry, but with the insistent acoustic guitars, clarinet, accordion, and backing vocals, the motion is ever forward in this exhortation toward the amorously dangerous. "Would You Have Me Born with Wooden Eyes" begins with a lone, fingerpicked bouzouki. It has few words, but with the addition of the Athletes it doesn't need them. Yorkston's voice, at its softest and gentlest — still carrying tension in it — is caressed into submission by the elegant, graceful textures provided by the band employing everything from harmoniums, violins, piano, accordion, vibraphone, double bass, and guitars. The backing vocal by Sarah Scutt underscores the poignancy in the lyric. In sum, Yorkston is at the very top of his game here. As a songwriter he is able to consistently convey in the most intimate terms the most hidden states of the heart without artifice, cheap confessionalism, or calculation. When the Haar Rolls In is as remarkable, understated, and truly authentic as anything else he's done, and in many ways, sets a new high-water mark for his originality and songwriting prowess. Along with older countryman and fellow songwriter Jackie Leven, Yorkston is proving that something indeed rises from the forgotten kingdom of Fife.


Born: 1971 in Kingsbarns, Fife, Scotland

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

James Yorkston was born in Kingsbarns, a small village in Fife, Scotland. At the age of eight, he started playing music and fell in love with the craft. At 17, he moved from Fife to the larger city of Edinburgh with his girlfriend. It was at that time that he became involved with a garage rock and punk band called Huckleberry, with Yorkston as the group's bass player. In 1996, he performed his first acoustic show after a friend working in a record shop picked Yorkston as an opening act for Bert Jansch...
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When the Haar Rolls In, James Yorkston
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