James Yorkston: The Route to the Harmonium (Domino) ****
Jon Fratelli: Bright Night Flowers (Cooking Vinyl) ****
Buffalo Blood: Buffalo Blood (Eel Pie Records) ****
Following the social shindig that was 2014’s The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society and his successful Indo-Celtic collaboration as Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, published author and touring gent James Yorkston returns to solo recording with this layered meditation of an album.
The Route to the Harmonium – Yorkston’s version of the road to peace – is a hymn to home couched in thrumming strings, some soothing, some restless. Acoustic guitar is at the heart of the record but Yorkston often builds up an exotic backdrop by overdubbing more unusual stringed things from dulcitone to nyckelharpa, creating the psych folk drone of The Irish Wars Of Independence or the eastern shimmer and clang of Yorkston Athletic, two of three hectic spoken word pieces on the album.
Album centrepiece My Mouth Ain’t No Bible is his conversation with a late musician friend. Yorkston has written beautifully on the subject before on Broken Wave but this is a pacier, more cacophonous slice of Celtic beat poetry, propelled by the martial beat of snare, rising to an urgent salvo, and decorated with the slightly dissonant chime of autoharp.
The pitch is calmer elsewhere though often offbeat. Your Beauty Could Not Save You is a mercurial reverie, with scratchy guitar and mournful mute trumpet, while the melancholy rumination of Solitary Islands All is complemented by The Villages I Have Known My Entire Life, a similarly contemplative piano ballad, suffused with comfort. And there is even a touch of Nick Drake timelessness to the wispy, sweet sagacity of Oh Me, Oh My.
Jon Fratelli also steps out solo with Bright Night Flowers, whose roots run deep. A version of the album was originally recorded seven years ago, shortly after The Fratellis’ frontman had released first solo album, Psycho Jukebox, and then shelved while he threw himself into a fruitful second phase of the band.
But while writing their most recent album, In Your Own Sweet Time, Fratelli squirrelled away some slower and more considered piano-based songs to sit alongside the best of the material on the parked album and Bright Night Flowers was reborn, with a more vocally confident Fratelli backed by widescreen string arrangements from the band’s touring keyboard player Will Foster.
The album opens with Foster’s sad, sweeping embellishments paving the way for the chamber country pop tones of Serenade In Vain, a Father John Misty-like starry amble which sets the standard.
The country-flavoured ballad Evangeline is a little too like a slow motion Fratellis but the loping Crazy Lovers Song is elevated by reverb guitar and sprightly strings, while Fratelli adopts the yearning country crooner style of Glen Campbell.
Sticking to the old school influences, In From the Cold is an after-hours ballad in the style of Tom Waits, while the twinkling waltz of the title track is a wide-eyed nocturnal odyssey, replete with urban romanticism.
Buffalo Blood is a transatlantic country collective, bringing together Leith’s recent UK Americana Award winning singer/songwriter Dean Owens with the US musicians Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman.
Their self-titled collaboration, which begins with the Gothic siren call of Ten Killer Ferry Lake, was inspired by the historically shoddy treatment of Native Americans, recorded in New Mexico, steeped in the Deep South and released by new London-based independent label Eel Pie Records.
Given its subject matter, Buffalo Blood is a downbeat, delicate collection of bluegrass lullabies such as Daughter of the Sun and the haunting White River, with the bonus mournful Morricone whistle of Ghosts of Wild Horses, and is such a seamless amalgam of traditions that it surely bears repeating. - Fiona Shepherd
Thomas Wilson: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 (CKD ) ****
Thomas Wilson, who died in 2001, was a defining figure among that mid-to-late 20th century generation of Scottish composers who broke the mould, lived and worked in Scotland, and laid the foundations on which the likes of James MacMillan could later flourish. As often happens with composers immediately after their deaths, Wilson’s music has fallen out of circulation. Will it ever come back? Just listen to the two symphonies – Nos 3 & 4 – on this fiery new recording by the RSNO under Rory Macdonald, and there’s every reason to believe it will. The Fourth, “Passeleth Tapestry,” is masterfully scored, fuelled by blistering energy at one extreme, intense beauty at the other. The Third is elemental, from the opening to the magical restfulness of the final bars. In these, and in his 1990 work Carillon, Wilson’s artistry comes dramatically to life in powerful, often highly sensitised RSNO performances. - Ken Walton
Christine Kydd: Shift & Change (Greentrax Recordings) ****
Scots singer and educator Christine Kydd was inducted last year into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame. This, her first “solo” album in years, demonstrates why. Sparely accompanied by a dependable crew including fiddler Gillian Frame, guitarist Innes Watson, Fraser Speirs on harmonica and producer Angus Lyon on keyboards and accordion, she mixes traditional and contemporary, opening with Michael Marra’s Just Another Rolling Stone, harmonica providing a reedily mellow accompaniment; there’s an American folk feel to her own Comin On Strong and she brings warmth to Braes o Balquhidder. The power of her singing really emerges in the unaccompanied Rue and the Thyme, her stately and measured delivery faintly echoing traveller singer Lucy Stewart, from whom it was collected, while, also unaccompanied, Jim Reid’s setting of the Violet Jacob poem Halloween unspools in a suspended cameo of heartbreak. - Jim Gilchrist