The Roundhouse, Tuesday August 19th 2008
Maddy Costa, The Guardian

Even though it has been transformed into a supper club for the night, with tables and red curtains making the cavernous interior feel almost cramped, the Roundhouse is an absurdly large venue for a singer as hushed and intimate as James Yorkston. Played on a stereo, his songs seem unassuming and fragile, sidling out of the speakers almost shyly.

Live, though, they pulse with strength. Yorkston opens with two tracks from an album not released until next month. A risky move, but he gets away with it because his stories are so absorbing and, although he sings softly, it is with such clarity that you do not miss a word. Whether his subject is lost love, wistful love, or a quiet but fierce love that tramps about in boggy fields and gets drenched in storms, he constantly surprises you with an unexpected image or attention-grabbing detail. “I carry your memory like a bag full of feathers,” he tells a woman he has not seen for 10 years in When the Haar Rolls In.

Shipwreckers, meanwhile, is as much a masterclass in lighting a fire as a tale of beating hearts. The music, too, is full of ornate flourishes, although the sound is never busy and, despite Yorkston’s protestations to the contrary, he and his band exude relaxed ease. In Heron, the six musicians seem to be playing a different song, but it somehow melds beautifully; in The Brussels Rambler, violinist Emma Smith scrapes her fingers across the strings, heightening the sense of emotional turmoil in the lyrics. On an assured cover of folk singer Lal Waterson’s Midnight Feast, they achieve something akin to a Velvet Underground meltdown. Add Yorkston’s genial and often surreal banter between songs, and you start to wonder why he is not playing bigger venues.