The ten years since James Yorkston and the Athletes released their debut album, Moving Up Country may have raced past, but it has certainly been long enough to forgot what life before Yorkston was like. Combining success with a profile just low enough to allow him to get on with what he wants, he is a confident enough musician to have created his own mini-genre, a sort of Scottish country folk. Associates and admirers come from many musical backgrounds though, including the Waterson dynasty, Alex Neilson, Kieran Hebden and Yorkston’s Fence Collective mates. Oh, and he used to be a punk.
The tenth anniversary is a fine excuse to hear a fine album again. However, nothing is straightforward in the Yorkston back story, and explaining how these songs fit into a wider chronology takes James several pages of liner notes on a later album. Although Moving Up Country was released in 2002, some of its songs had already been recorded and released in limited editions, by Fence and even through John Peel who, along with John Martyn, was an influential early supporter. The album released by Domino pivots around a song called ‘Moving Up Country, Roaring the Gospel’. So does Yorkston’s third album, Roaring the Gospel, which came out in 2007. This superfluity of songs reflects the intensive two weeks the band spent in a Borders cottage, immersing themselves in a new Scottish music, judging by the session photos, using traditional Scottish tools such as Marlboros and Stella.
The re-release differs from the original album in that it includes a new final track, ‘The Lang Toun’, which was left off first time round because the band weren’t sure about it, but came out as a single and ended up on Roaring the Gospel anyway. Now back in its rightful place on Moving Up Country, it makes a lot of sense. It is indeed both Lang, at 10 minutes, and a Toun – a loose groove, over a bagpipe drone, that reflects the band’s dynamic live presence better than any other track. It sounds not much like folk and a lot like something else rather special, a music devised for the sole purpose of expressing what Yorkston needs to say. The warm wail of the acoustic guitar plugged into something not meant for it is the perfect accompaniment to Yorkston’s story of teen passion and betrayal. The song forms an enclosed space around the listener, and it’s a wrench when we have to leave it at the end.
Moving Up Country survives a great deal of re-listening, not least because of Yorkston’s emotional honesty. His lyrics are ordinary in the best sense, reflecting stories that seem entirely real, expressed with a clarity that always eludes us when most needed. ‘Saint Patrick’, a song about getting over one woman in the company of another, contains two lyrics that demonstrate this perfectly: “I swear that I would have called you if I’d been sure you were alone / And doesn’t that drive things home?” and later “And letting things get out of hand / Is exactly what I’ve got planned!”
There are no weak tracks on the album, with is tightly structured. The first half is about the downsides of love, breaking-up and suffering. ‘Tender to the Blues’ is first among equals here, with its achingly beautiful melody, its spare lyrics – “I’m no fool, my heart’s just exposed” – and its overt reference to Jackson C. Frank’s touchstone track, ‘Running With The Blues’.
At the halfway point, ‘Moving Up Country, Roaring the Gospel’, is the song that convinced John Peel. It has a delicious melancholy, underscored by piano, that builds with Kenny Anderson (King Creosote)’s accordion into a much more upbeat track. This heralds the second half of the record, where the songs are about what happens when love works out, at least on the surface. ‘Cheating the Game’, for example, has a chirpy music hall bass and washboard backing and a sunny demeanour, although Yorkston’s way of celebrating his relationship involves a surprising amount of contingency planning. ‘I Spy Dogs’ tells a fond tale of watching a bad band in a Paris café with a girlfriend. ‘I Know My Love’ is the only traditional track on Moving Up Country, evidence of Yorkston’s developing relationship with folk.
The re-release includes a bonus disc, in addition to the full album, consisting of demos, Peel sessions and the offcuts from the recording sessions. The demos tend to show just what a good job Simon Raymonde did on the production of the album, where the Athletes sound is shown off to excellent effect, creating a depth and warmth that adds hugely to the addictive atmosphere. An eclectic range of tracks are released here for the first time, including ‘A Distance Travelled’, which has an almost jazz swing to it, and ‘Saving a Saviour’ which edges towards the narration Yorkston later used on ‘Woozy With Cider’.
The Athletes are the other crucial element in the equation, especially Doogie Paul with his characterful acoustic bass, Faisal Rahman playing a faintly unhinged selection of percussion, and Reuben Taylor on accordion and piano. Moving Up Country has aged extremely well, and ten years on few musicians have made anything as consistent or quietly original never mind on debut. Yorkston is touring the album during the Spring, and the Athletes live are not to be missed.