True story. My friend Django has been at me for years to listen to Adelaide band, The Yearlings. Django lives in Melbourne and goes and sees the band every time they visit and he’s a big fan. Now Django is the person whose taste in music I’d trust more than almost anyone, so it’s kinda weird that I haven’t followed his advice on this one, especially as The Yearlings are a local Adelaide band. In fact, I’ve been set a few times to go to gigs only to have to cancel at the last second for reasons beyond my control.
Anyway, Django and his family were staying with us over the recent long weekend and once again he was at me to listen to The Yearlings. He was making the point as he and my wife and the kids walked out the front door on their way for a stroll down to the park. I had some other stuff to do so stayed home, but once again I made a mental note to catch up on The Yearlings.
About two hours later they arrive home and my wife says, you are not going to believe this. Django tells me that on their walk they went into a local record shop and who should be there other than Chris Parkinson, guitarist for The Yearlings. Apart from the weird coincidence, Django was rapt to have a chance to chat to Chris and, of course, he bought me a copy of The Yearlings’ latest album, Highway Dancing.
“For me,” Django reckons, “it’s a bit different to their usual stuff, the stuff I really like, because they recorded it in New York with session musicians.”
Normally it’s just Parkinson and his partner, vocalist/guitarist, Robyn Chalken, Django explained. “I just love their concerts and the way its just them without a band, so I was a bit dubious about this latest one, using session musos. But, hey, they are great players.”
Okay, so I’m probably not the best person to talk about The Yearlings, but I’m going to anyway (though don’t treat this as the official Johnny’s review).
Highway Dancing was recorded in New York in early 2008 and the session musos are actually, by and large, members of one of my favourite alt.country/Americana bands, Ollabelle. I’ll probably do something on them some other day, but suffice to say, they are a superb outfit. They include among their number one Amy Helm, daughter of Levon, instrumentalists and vocalist from The Band, but unfortunately she doesn’t make an appearance on Highway Dancing as she was sick when The Yearlings were in town (so Chris told Django). (Just for the hell of it, here are father and daughter singing together.)
Now, I have to be honest here. I was having trouble with this album and I can easily tell you why. I had it in my head — from what others had said and, yes, from their name — that The Yearlings were some sort of local knock-off of the similarly constituted, similarly alt.country Gillian Welch. Who can live up to that comparison? But I think once you get that idea out of your head, you can appreciate this band a whole lot more.
Sure, they resemble Gillian Welch, the band. (Welch calls her and her partner in music, David Rawlings, “a two-piece band named Gillian Welch”). The Yearlings are a two-piece band with harmony vocals and the same basic instrumentation (essentially, acoustic guitars). And yes, both tap into the same rich catalog of American roots music; and yes, Chris Parkinson can whip up those cascading guitar breaks in a manner that brings to mind David Rawlings.
But so what? You might as well say Beethoven and Gershwin are the same because they both use pianos. Or that Toto and Led Zeppelin are the same because they have vocals, bass and guitars.
IN fact, if I was going to make a comparison with any similar band — and sometimes it can be helpful exercise so that people know what neighbourhood they are in — then the comparison I’d make is with Hem.
There are no bad songs here. There are some very strong ones. ‘Keep a Hold’ is beautiful, with some lovely guitar work. ‘Henry’ stands out too, and is one of those where I hear Hem (nothing but a compliment). My favourite is ‘Take Me Dancing’, not least because I like the lyric which I find strangely ambivalent, especially in its reference to “No kids to speak of”: I really can’t quite figure if this is a song of loss or not, but that’s how I hear it, and the feeling is made more poignant by the generally upbeat nature of the lyrics, the idea of dancing as release. Quite haunting, I found.
On the (slightly) downside, I’d have to say that I don’t find either Chalken or Parkinson strong singers. Chalken in particular often comes in weak and then finds strength as the song progresses. Fortunately, their voices work well together and Django assures me that live the effect is magical. The additional instrumentation provided on this album is tasteful and nicely understated, though it does sound like session musos filling gaps rather than an integrated band. To be expected I guess.
I really like Parkinson’s guitar playing (would give my right arm to be half as good), though he lacks that sense of danger that you hear in David Rawlings. (And yes, I know I said we shouldn’t compare The Yearlings to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but hey.) Rawlings always sounds like he is haring off after notes that don’t really belong in the scale or key in which he is playing and it can be breathtaking to listen to him as he just about veers off the track and into dischord, only to pull it back at the last minute. Parkinson is much more — what? — disciplined in that respect. Again, that’s not a criticism but it might give you some sense as to why I think The Yearlings = An Australian Gillian Welch is a false equation.
Quick summary: I really can’t see anyone who likes this sort of roots music not liking this album. And I’ll be getting the rest of the back catalog.
PS: And then, wouldn’t you know it. I check the band’s website for their next local gig and it is July 19, when I’m overseas. Sorry, Django, but there seems to be a curse on me when it comes to seeing them live…
This clip doesn’t really do them justice cause of the bad sound, but there’s not much around: