James Yorkston / James Yorkston & the Athletes

Just Beyond the River

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James Yorkston and the Athletes' second full-length album, Just Beyond the River is just as enchanting and haunting as their first, 2002's wonderful Moving Up Country. Maybe even more so, thanks to a stronger batch of songs and Kieran Hebden of Four Tet's wonderfully atmospheric production. Unlike far too many practitioners of indie neo-folk who seem to regard melody and dynamics as minor annoyances to be brushed aside, Yorkston and his crew embrace them. There is a fragile beauty and grace to Yorkston's songs, and the arrangements caress and encourage his tender voice on lovely songs like "Heron," the soaring "Surf Song," "Hermitage," and the album's high point, the sprawling epic "Shipwreckers," which finds the band spiraling out like a sober Pogues. The only song that stumbles a touch is the clamorous "Banjo #1," where, by turning up the volume, the band breaks the spell the previous six songs had cast so powerfully. Fortunately the song that follows it, "We Flew Blind," goes right back to being hushed and beautiful, and all is well until the album's last beguiling note fades away. You hate to make the comparison, because it seems so facile and a touch improbable, but Just Beyond the River sounds like the kind of record Nick Drake might have made if he had been able to keep going. Or maybe the kind of record Ray Davies might have made if he had fallen in love with Fairport back in the day. The same sense of pastoral wonder and beautiful restraint exists within Yorkston that did them. He and his group (and Hebden) have created one of the strongest, most affecting, and most tender records of the year, a record that puts James Yorkston on the shortlist of British folk giants.

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