James Yuill - Turning Down Water for Air
Record Label: Nettwerk Music Group
Release Date: May 26, 2009
There are a myriad of ways to describe British singer/songwriter James Yuill ‐‐‐ innovative, refreshing, intricate, quirky, gifted ‐‐‐ and no matter what adjective one uses, it still won't touch the joy his debut album Turning Down Water For Air brings.
Utilizing Pro-Tools, GarageBand and various other software applications, Turning Down Water for Air is an arresting, organic provocation that blends the subdued grace of folk music with the visceral pulse of electronica. Constructed of gently-plinking guitar, cello, laptop and sensitive-busker vocals the album gives way to a hissing, throbbing digital monster that somehow manages to weave together as one seamless piece. Labeled by various British magazines as a "laptop folk prophet," and "folktronica's next great star," Yuill has an innate ability to sing songs about age-old subjects and still sound more modern and magnetic than arguably any other singer/songwriter in Britain.
To understand Yuill, one must first understand the folktronica movement. The label was coined by the British press at the close of the 20th century and was used as a blanket term for any musician that combined elements of ambient electronica, folk, jazz, classical or hop hop. Artists who have been described by the British press as possessing folktronica sounds include: The Album Leaf, Animal Collective, the Beta Band, Beth Orton, Caribou, CocoRosie, Dan Deacon, Department of Eagles, Efterklang, Four Tet, Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, Goldfrapp, Kaki King, The Notwist, Benoit Pioulard and Patrick Wolf, to name but a few. However, when the songs are more muted and the electronica sounds are minimal, the genre is deemed laptop folk. Yuill has gone on record as shunning both terms and has preferred to think of himself as a singer/songwriter. He has even admitted that, "my electronica isn't good enough and my folk isn't good enough, if I could emulate half of what The Postal Service did, then I'd be happy."
Yuill's voice is tender, simple and honest. There's not much oomph at work, but the fragility makes for an intimate and sincere listen. His supple acoustic guitar lines are understated and placid, as evidenced in the warm album opener "You Always Do," and the graceful album closer, "Somehow." Most of the album is devoid of memorable, singalong choruses and despite that, this is still an engaging and worthwhile disc. The assortment of dizzying beats and laptop effects are where the album's true energy shines. It's almost as if the beats and electro-sounds take the place of the sing-along choruses and the radio hooks.
Some of the effort's most indelible moments are "No Pins Allowed," a tightly-crafted masterwork with toe-tapping house beats and blasts of ringing distortion; the sparse and delicate "Breathing In"; “The Ghost,” a somber Nick Drake sendup that finds him channeling his inner troubadour and tortured, emotional past; the Postal Service-esque “No Surprise," and the drum-synth swirl of “She Said in Jest," which begins rather flat but takes off towards the end. For all the aural craziness, Yuill has an innate ability to communicate a message in rather simple terms. An example of this is the stirring "Head Over Heels," in which he yearns for his dream girl, "I need you in the morning, to make me tea, to kiss me when I'm yawning," and the tender-hearted "Left-Handed Girl," in which he proclaims "I'm your right handed man and you're my left-handed girl."
Of the twelve songs on Turning Down Water for Air, none are as graceful, sincere or heartfelt as album closer, "Somehow," a beautiful lamentation on love, dysfunction and neediness that finds him singing, "When I'm lost, you sit on my shoulders and point out where I went wrong. I know you want me to hurt myself." With a subtle but effective riff and maudlin vocals, "Somehow" is the kind of song that comes along once every few years. With the exception of the last 30 seconds, there's nary a tech beat or throbbing bass. Instead, the song allows Yuill to present his tamed acoustic charm and channel the emotional beams of David Byrne in a way that is wholly satisfying, lilting and rewarding. The soft aria and raw honesty finds him digging deeper into his emotional well than on any other song and it's a resounding way to close out an album.
Turning Down Water for Air is personal, emotional and contradictory. While the low-frequency dance basslines heave and suffocate, recalling the clutch of electronica and a sweaty dancefloor, the earnest guitar plucking is sweet and stately. On paper it sounds like a marriage that'd never last, and that is the exact reason it's so charming. Not many albums can combine chugging energetic beats with subtle acoustic sensibility and sound this effective. From the bedroom to the dancefloor, Turning Down Water For Air is intriguing, entertaining and unique. James Yuill is indeed a promising individual who has enough ingenuity and sensitivity to go a long way.