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James Yorkston & The Big Eye Family Players
Folk Songs Michael Wheeler , August 10th, 2009 14:26

Folk can be a loaded term. It's a genre surrounded in the pitfalls of receieved wisdom and a dense heritage. You've not only got the past to deal with, but also the past even further back down the line, and then the multi-stranded offshoot present. Sometimes its better just to keep your head down, let history play out by itself and leave the categorisations and clarifications to someone else, which is why I'm inclined to go along with James Yorkston's refusal to get too tied up in aligning himself with the various movements of folk over the years.

This, of course, might sound a bit rich seeing how this latest release is a collection of songs lifted from folk's rich history, and also because of Yorkston's affiliation with the Fife based Fence Collective. But Yorkston will always contend that his work falls under the singer-songwriter tag rather than that of the folk musician. Speaking during a Culture Show episode looking at the work of the Fence musicians, Yorkston said "I just think we're songwriters. We do a lot of traditional songs, but mostly we're songwriters. I think there's a big difference between a singer-songwriter who's influenced by folk music and folk musicians. I'm just a song-writer".

A collection of traditional British and Irish songs, with one from Galicia in Spain along the way, these are mostly interpretations of versions made during the folk revivals of the 60s and 70s by artists such as Anne Briggs and Nic Jones. It shouldn't be seen as any sort of 'state of folk' communique, or an effort by Yorkston to ally himself with the past. Instead, each song is a tribute from one artist to another, an acknowledgement of inspiration and also a tying up of loose ends. Yorkston has been including covers of traditional songs in his work for all of his career including a duet with Kenny 'King Creosote' Anderson on 'Blue Bleezin Blind Drunk' and a cover of Lal Waterson's 'Midnight Feast' on his most recent release, When the Haar Rolls In so it would seem like a logical step at some point to compile an album's worth of covered material.

Instead of his usual backing band The Athletes, here Yorkston is accompanied by the Leeds based The Big Eyes Family Players. Interestingly, their leader James Green claimed to know little of the folk tradition when asked to collaborate, and it doesn't feel like Yorkston is trying to get by on period charm alone. The original melodies are altered here and there, placing the interpretations close to his own sound and style.

Yorkston shares with Guy Garvey a voice of gruff delicacy, and has the same deft ability to wrap a lyric with the right level of tenderness and yearning while never being cloying. The band provide beautiful, nuanced accompaniment throughout, from the playful shuffle of 'I Went To Visit The Roses', soothed along with small washes of harp, to the pedal steel guitar lingering in the background of 'Rufford Park Poachers', a cautionary tale from 1851 in which four ne'er do wells were sentenced to fourteen years of transport for the killing of a gamekeeper. "Among the gorse, to settle scores, these forty gathered stones, to make a fight for poor men's rights, and break the keepers' bones".

Other arresting moments include the hushed, twisting duet of 'Just As The Tide Was Flowing' to the thundering gallop of 'Low Down In The Broom', a tale of young lovers shying away from the world. But the centrepiece is 'Little Musgrave' a winding narrative detailing the doomed tryst between a little Musgrave and the fair Lady Barnard. "Good day good day you handsome youth, god make you safe and free/ what would you give this day Musgrave to lie one night with me? / Oh I dare not for my land lady and I dare not for my life/ For the ring on your white finger shows you are Lord Barnard's wife". The tale unfolds against a stunning melody that rises and falls to the beat of the tale and the rhythm of the short affair until the inevitable tragic denouement.

It's the stand-out track of a fine tribute to the folk tradition of a musician taking long established songs, putting his own mark on the tested formulas and then passing them on for consumption by whoever encounters them along the road.