Album Review: James Yorkston and the Second Hand Orchestra – The Wide, Wide River

Warm, natural, humorous, gentle, empathic ….all words that justifiably get bandied about in the scrabble to describe James Yorkston’s music. What’s often overlooked is his continued pursuit of different pathways around the songwriting landscape. He’s worked with Kieran Hebden, Simon Raymonde, Rustin Man and Alexis Taylor over two decades of record making and most recently as part of the thrilling indo-jazz-folk trio Yorkston/Thorne/Khan. So it’s no surprise that his new album ‘The Wide, Wide River’, available from 22nd January via Domino, sees him hunkering down with The Second Hand Orchestra from Sweden to add another dimension to his music.

Brought together by his long- time friend, producer Karl- Jonas Winqvist, the Orchestra’s involvement in the recording was intriguingly open-ended. As Yorkton explains “My previous album, ‘The Route to the Harmonium’, was mostly played, recorded, and arranged by me, alone in my studio in Cellardyke… but the idea behind these Second Hand Orchestra sessions was to hand over a fair amount of that control from the offset, to record more quickly, trusting in the group of musicians that Karl-Jonas would assemble”. That trust shaped an improvisational approach to recording – the band only had a sneak at one of the songs in advance, the rest they had to respond to instinctively in the studio from the get-go. Sounds like a gamble, like it could get messy, like there’s a plot to be lost? No there’s none of that, ‘The Wide, Wide River’ is sensationally inventive and fulfilling.

The album sets off at a pace with the opener ‘Ella Mary Leather’, cryptically named after a folk song collector from the early 1900s but only according to JY ‘to protect the innocent’. There’s a hint of McCartney as the staccato piano and skittering drums push the confessional to its lush swooning hook. It’s chamber pop but with the emotions exposed and tangled as the imagery tumbles down from Yorkston’s pen. ‘A classical shepherd’, the ‘bakery isle’, those ‘close-assed manoeuvres’ and ‘vodka after vodka’ mix it up with a revengeful ‘piss on his bags’. It’s like a novella that swings from anguish to anger to regret all in three and a half minutes.

After the compact drama of ‘Ella Mary Leather, that one song that the Second Hand Orchestra were allowed to preview, ‘The Wide, Wide River’ picks up a freer flowing spirit. The stretched out ‘To Soothe Her Wee Bit Sorrows’ wraps a jumping bassline in an upbeat Laurel Canyon strum while avoiding laying back too far, thanks to some craggy earthiness from the strings and brass. The lyrics are reduced to repeated eerie phrases (‘I can’t sleep unless I see the trees’), delivered with a Thom Yorke intensity as the spacious sound swells, builds and then tantalisingly slips away.

‘There Is No Upside’ follows a similar course with the fiddles raising the tempo like ‘Fishermen’s Blues’-era Waterboys while ‘Struggle’ is another tune that impressively is left to take its own time, the chugging guitars eventually leading you to Yorkston’s vocal, all sweet, real and lightly scuffed. Written lovingly to his own children, the song deals honestly with everyday difficult things. As he explains “It’s me telling my kids that it’s ok to not be ok, and that indeed, sometimes I struggle”.

What’s most striking about ‘The Wide,Wide River’ is its identity as an act of communal music making. This is a collective endeavour. Even the slower songs warm to a woozy, off kilter camp-fire sound. ‘Choices Like Wide River’ has the Orchestra gently playing with a classic Yorkston melody and singing along to the chorus arm in arm. Not that the album ever loses itself in coziness, Yorkston’s barbed and biting lyricism sees to that as does the edginess of songs like ‘A Droplet Forms’. All booming bass, plaintive piano and big arrangements, this quasi-sixties ballad has the Second Hand Orchestra teetering on the brink of holding it together… and that’s the ultimate thrill of it.

The final moments of ‘The Wide, Wide River’ sustain that everyday epic feel. Extending the emotional thread from ‘The Blues We Sang’ a previous Yorkston gem, ‘A Very Old Fashioned Blues’ pitches his lonely reminiscences against the uplift of the Second Hand Orchestra choir. Any song that starts with the line ‘Robert’s in the sin bin’ hints of greatness and yes, it delivers. When the chorus takes off and the Floydian guitar shapes rise up, the track glistens with the rough beauty of Trembling Bells at their melodic best. After that rush the album bows out with deceptive gentleness. The pensive, almost weary ‘We Test The Beams’ tip toes out of the simple shimmer of guitar and cello, as Yorkston touches on some darker truths of what we are with a vocal of restrained, grizzled emotion. Words failing as the song disappears, ‘We Test The Beams’ is one of those closing tracks that demands a deep breath from the listener.

Peter Moren, of Peter, Bjorn and John fame and now one of the Second Hand Orchestra, describes the making of ‘The Wide, Wide River’ as ‘an organic, beautiful mess, all moving in the same direction’. Played with a joyful focus and shared understanding it’s music that steadily coaxes you in ….yet more enticing magic from James Yorkston, pulled out from under that characteristic cap.

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