We are exactly one year old today. Technically one year ago, we had our first post about Cancel the Astronauts. A year later, CTA have finally released their debut. While we stumble along at the furthest periphery of the Scottish music scene, I thought that a good way to mark this date would be to feature two recently acquired deluxe box sets; namely Meursault’s ‘Something for the Weakened’ on Song by Toad records and James Yorkston’s ‘I Was a Cat From a Book’ out on Domino.
I made a point of sitting down and listening to the previous Meursault record ‘All Creatures Will Make Merry’ before attempting to write down my thoughts about the new one. My overall feelings for the band stem from my initial and current reaction to this sublime record. While I did have the digital emusic version for some time, to be honest, it didn’t get much play time. It was obviously special, but I seemed to be less taken with the quieter bits in between the more accessible stomping melodic fare. As a result, I tended to listen to it sporadically. After pre-ordering the box set, I also ordered a vinyl copy of ‘Creatures’. Much of the time waiting was spent listening to the first record. To say it was a revelation is an understatement. Quietly sitting on the couch, listening and watching the vinyl spin it all made sense; the poetry, the compelling and contemplative voice, the lo-fi erratic beauty of it all; I fell in love with an album previously only understood superficially.
Getting the Deluxe Box Set (now sold out) was a relatively easy decision. It contained the 12 inch, both 7 inch singles, badges, a lyric booklet, download codes, tote and t-shirt and, most importantly of all, the inclusion of a 12 track demo CD. I purposefully avoided streaming any songs because I wanted to put the record on and hear it for the first time when it arrived, something that isn’t actually easy to do anymore these days.
The opening track is both simple and effective; immediately we learn that the ‘weakened’ should not and will not be weak anymore. The next song ‘Flitten’ happens to be the one song I’ve heard several times before. I almost wish that I hadn’t. It is so powerful, in fact, that on the first listen it still manages to eclipse everything else on side A. ‘Lament for a Teenage Millionaire’ steps back somewhat with its pleasing banjo melody. Oddly there were no lyrics for ‘Settling’ in the booklet. It might actually be my favourite song on the record. What is most apparent is the confidence in which the music is presented. The layers are elegantly put together. It is rousing, deep and heartfelt. It seems more purposefully put together. Overall it is a surprisingly economical, effective and polished masterpiece.
When you turn the record over and the vocals from ‘Lightning Bolt’ began, I was struck with just how much more soothing, comfortable and accessible Mr. Pennycook’s voice has become. The new single ‘Dull Spark’ has a beautiful and gentle melody which perfectly sets up the grander ‘Dearly Distracted’ which follows. I happened to be browsing twitter and just as the mailman rang Ian Rankin (having just obtained the record himself) had commented how up until then that song was the standout. I’d have to gently disagree. I had taken such a shine to ‘Settling’ that I was expecting something even more massive.
The first listening sequence was as follows album, the demo cd, the album on mp3, and then one more listen of the demos. After one listen I was not altogether sure the record had managed to go beyond the previous. The demo CD is truly wonderful. In many respects it represents a bridge for those people stuck on the beauty of ‘All Creatures’ to more comfortably embrace the new record. The acoustic version of ‘Settling’ is worth the price of admission alone. The other alternate versions are as wonderful as the unused gems ‘Timbre’ and ‘Steve’. Given a hypothetical choice of only being able to keep the new record or the demo CD, I might just have chosen the 12 songs on the demo after my first listen. Hopefully this will be made available in the future.
Several subsequent plays balanced and deepened my appreciation of the new material. It is truly an accomplished release. Meursault, always a diamond in the rough, have spent a good deal more time working on the setting. It is grand and heartfelt. Emotionally satisfying and moving. It certainly will rank as one of the year’s best. Personally, I think it raises Scottish music in general to a whole new level. I mean this in all seriousness; this single record by itself has raised the bar. Whether Frightened Rabbit fame awaits them outside (or even within) Scotland is an unknown. What is certain is that they should be as successful, both domestically and abroad, if there truly was any rhyme and reason to the musical landscape.
Though it arrived a bit late due to the apparent unavailability of the backgammon pieces, the James Yorkston ‘I Was a Cat from a Book’ box set is equally impressive. For one thing, there is a genuine box. The double 10 inch gatefold doubles as the backgammon board. The 3 piece CD/DVD contains the album, some alternate versions and DVD of the Union Chapel show. For someone never having had the opportunity to see JY in person this probably ranks as the best extra bit of all.
Like in the case of Meursault, my JY collection was limited to an emusic copy of ‘The Year of the Leopard’. For whatever reason, it was never really listened to either; with the exception of repeatedly played ‘Woozy with Cider’. I was enamored with the spoken word tale but did not explore the rest of the record. Odd as it might sound, I’d never really taken the time to hear James Yorkston sing.
The immediate reaction to the first song ‘Catch’ was how much I liked Mr. Yorkston’s singing voice. Watching a bit of the live DVD reinforces what a good guitar player-performer he is as well. By the second song ‘Kath with Rhodes’ I was struck with the exceptional musical sensibility unfurling before me. Not just a pretty voice. The next two songs are equally satisfying. I literally knew nothing about the record other than it was coming out. I was completely taken by surprise to hear ‘Just as Scared’; unquestionably my favourite duet from the Fruit Tree Foundation record. The overall reaction was so favourable that I had to go on a 5 item back catalogue online shopping trip to shore up some of the gaps in my instant JY collection.
I’m looking forward to the releases to come in our second year. There is so much still to explore. It has been a pretty amazing start.
To celebrate, Pedro has wangled us a couple of spots on the list for Django, Django this evening. The Scottish connection just never ends.