Kris Drever – The Best Of: Album Review

So much more than an also ran, Kris Drever confirms his pole position, with this back catalogue cementing his right to be.

Release Date: 19th May 2023

Label: Reveal Records

Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital

I used to wonder who these lavish and detailed compilation albums were aimed at, given the flurry of, broadly, similar reprises/retrospectives coming out of Planet Folk right now. We have featured a few, Drever associate John McCusker being one such. Surely the true acolyte will have much the material already, and, with all due respect to the artists concerned, they are seldom big enough chart-botherers to tap into a general audience? But, because there always is a but, this release goes some the way to explaining to whom and why. (OK, and there is the time anointed PR ploy of a trio of unreleased and new songs, but we won’t hold that against him.)

I have always liked Drever, but, it’s true, I had never quite crossed over into the full fanboy, my bad, my preferences tending to err more towards his rightly celebrated collaborative work, with the mighty Lau and with McCusker, in the trio Drever, McCusker, Woomble. Silly me, I had somehow thought him the weaker link in each trio, so, in part, maybe this release is aimed at the odd erstwhile doubter. So anyone like me. Plus, to be fair, he is at that stage in his career where the list of his releases is getting to be pretty damn extensive. Not everybody will want, or even afford to be able to hoover ’em all up, so this proves a pretty good retrospective to dip into. Plus, as my shelves indisputably display, a decent Best Of often trips off into a deeper delve and further purchases. (Which has already happened following this.)

This is a double set, 36 songs, stretching back over his 5 studio solo albums, his 5 with Lau, the aforementioned DMcCW, plus a plethora of collaborations, too many to mention, and certainly more than can be included in this package. (So, to save you looking, nothing from either of the two Spell Songs sets or from his digital only set, Transatlantic, with Aiofe O’Donovan.) In a not quite order of release, the solo tracks are broadly grouped together, with the collaborations dotted about them for contrast. Let’s see how it spins….

Clearly, Blackwater, his 2006 debut gets quite a shout, where, in a single stride, he became arguably the better known of the Drever dynasty, Ivan, the onetime Wolfstone front man, becoming Kris’s father, rather than Kris remaining merely Ivan’s son, if you catch my drift. Farewell To Fuineray is the opener, it fitting that a lament should be the first song that you hear, so suited is his voice to such fare. Indeed, as the warm honey-heathered tones drip out, already I can see my earlier prejudices to be just that. With just guitar and voice for the first verse or so, fiddle and harmonium then jut in gloriously, as sad a song you’ll hear today. Incidentally, it was the song that first caught him a recording contract, making it another apt reason to open with. Steel And Stone (Black Water) follows, showing quite how well his voice fits with a female harmony, it here provided by Eddi Reader, also being one of many Sandy Wright songs featured on this compendium. Lau then get their first fanfare, with Butcher Boy, from their debut, a year later than Drever’s own. Less experimental than later work, the seeds for greater creativity are being sewn, Aidan O’Rourke’s fiddle well to the fore, with Martin Green just beginning to tinker with the studio hoops he could make his boxwork leap through. Back to Blackwater for Harvest Gypsies and for Beads And Feathers, the former upbeat and near Americana, the latter another mournful offering, the harmonium of Donald Shaw suitably maudlin. Harvest Gypsies was written by Boo Hewardine, which later led to the two of them forging links and collaborating.

Lau’s Unquiet Grave is about as cheerful as any such a title should promise, consolidating the notion that Drever delivers mighty fine dirge, that seldom celebrated lynchpin of the traditional folk canon. It is as wonderful as my first hearing, all those years ago. Poor Man’s Son and Navigator wrap up the selections from Blackwater, chosen to showcase his yearning vocals, the first as good a slice of country’n’orcadian as has ever been. Navigator sideswiped me a little, so redolent of the Roddy Woomble style of both singing and writing, having me falsely assume it to be from the trio album, actually being a Phil Gaston song, with Drever singing a semi-tone down from his usual. Next up are four selections from his second solo disc. Simpler and more unadorned, some may find them overly stark and simple, needing a few listens to show their guaunt beauty, especially title track, Mark The Hard Earth and a further Wright song, Shining Star.

The Poorest Company is now the awaited track from Drever McCusker Woomble, actually to all intents and purposes a solo Drever track, little evidence of his bandmates, until the atmospheric later chorus and instrumental coda. Fair play, this is, after all, Drever’s show. Eamonn Coyne is a tenor banjo player from Ireland, now an Edinburgh resident, and a regular fixture on the cicuit there; Salas Celtica and Treacherous Orchestra each feature his playing. Working frequently in a duo with Drever, they have made a number of recordings together, as a duo and with Megan Henderson. So we get Isle of France and the Mareel version of Wintermoon, sandwiching Wild Hurricane/Lament For Glencoe, by all three. Pitched towards the more traditional end of things, they feel here more for completeness, pleasant though they are.

Back to Lau for a deeper immersion, with the closer on the first disc being Banks Of Marble, from 2009’s Arc Light. The progression from their first album is immediately present, Green now throwing off-kilter shapes and textures into the mix, that conflict/complement his cohorts with aplomb. Drever’s voice even seems stronger and more confident. Their next album was Race The Loser, three years later, and the transformation is near complete, with electronics now a major part of the sound. Throwing Pennies is the song chosen here, followed by Ghosts from the next one, possibly their masterpiece, The Bell That Never Rang. Drever is now comfortable on electric guitar, and his voice carries clearly and confidently over the expanded palette of instrumentation available. It is a wonderful song, and had to be in this collection. and, yes, it probably counts as a dirge.

Suddenly it is 2016, and we are at Drever’s If Wishes Were Horses album, which saw him forsake much the traditional arrangements; fiddles, boxes, of his earlier work, it being very much singer-songwriter territory. It is represented by Capernaum, I Didn’t Try Hard Enough, the title track, Hard Year and Five Past Two. More organic, I guess, than Lau, these songs feature meshed guitars, picking in a constant stream of syncopated notes, and a rhythm section that provide more wallop than anything thus far. I Didn’t Try Hard Enough is a song that always reminds me of Martin Simpson’s Never Any Good, a good thing, in my book; in fact, there is a very Simpson-esque tang to all these cuts, which needs a mention that the guitar lead parts are from Ian Carr, as well as Drever himself. Carr also provides the the trumpet that lifts the title track to amongst the best songs here. Yolanda Quartey is the female voice in Hard Year, which, with Five Past Two, shows an emerging pop sensitivity creeping in to his canon. Given the year before had seen a duet EP with Boo Hewardine, I wonder if that may have been the source of that. When The Shouting Is Over comes from that pairing, and is the next track. Unsurprisingly , it is a well constructed guitar strumalong, with Everly harmonies to boot.

For those beginning to twig that The Bell That Never Rang, the album, has been and gone, the running order now tricks us with the title track. Sadly not the full fifteen minutes, just the radio-edit, and the prime example of the whole album needing, nay, demanding to be a purchase made on the back of this, for anyone and everyone unfamiliar. Even in this foreshortened version it is remarkable, three individuals in complete control of their musical destiny. The chorale towards the close is pure goose bump. But don’t lose that feeling, as Where The World Is Thin, his next solo project, saw a withdrawal from the panache of Horses, and provides four tracks here. A more subtle and stripped back album, which, if not a full return to traditional influences, it, by being less strident, packs in more charm. Scapa Flow 2019, with muted trumpet and electronic percussion, is an example of the speed with which his own songwriting has developed. The title track is more whimsical, with spectral keyboards, whereas Sanday is a simple love song, if to a place. The instrumental effects enhance rather than detract from the relative simplicity of the song. Hunker Down/That Old Blitz Spirit then sounds as if it could have been a prtent for covid, which, given the late 2020 release date, is not impossible.

Ready to see where Lau went next? With She Put On Her Headphones, from Midnight And Closedown, it seems the whole chamber electronica, almost Beatle-y in melody. From the same album, itshardtoseemtobeokwhenyourenot, is about as far from the nominally folk band they began life as. I like that alchemy, it here having them sound like an orchestral New Order, with Dark Secret then as convincingly exotic and unclassifiable, bar the core melody. Drever’s vocal is here as mellow as a dram of Highland Park, a simile perhaps in keeping, or not, with the lyrical thrust. A dauntingly poignant song.

Finally we come to the bonus material, three new tracks, two solo, with the third being another Hewardine collaboration. It comes first, twin guitars and twin voices, Drever taking the lead. Similar in feel, I guess to their other joint work, I wonder if this comes from the same sessions? Punchbag is quite a scary song, set to a delicate melody, underpinned with bouzouki and bodhran, with Rachel Lightbody’s backing vocals. A litany of passive aggression, is it a possible riposte to Dark Secret? No idea, but ouch….. Catterline, which pre-released this set as the ‘single’, closes the show. Named after an Aberdeenshire village, it is a sweet, charming song, and a seamless way to close this history so far. As a performer, he is clearly way more complex and varied player than my earlier and ill-founded preconceptions had given him credit for. And, if that is the outcome others will find from this engaging pot-pourri, then it will have been a job well done.

For those taken by the salvo of closing songs, and liking this further, if not new direction, new tributary, Drever embarks soon on a tour with his new Kris Drever Band, consisting of himself with Louis Abbott on drums (and a whole lot else), Euan Burton on Bass and the backing vocals of Rachel Lightbody. Should be good.

May 25 Orkney, Folk Festival

June 1 Peebles, Eastgate Theatre

June 2 Gateshead, Sage

June 3 Hull, Wrecking Ball Music & Books

June 4 Saltaire, Live Room

June 6 Milton Keynes, Stables

June 7 Bristol, Redgrave Theatre

June 9 Totnes, Dartington Hall

June 10 South Petherton, The David Hall

June 11 Cardiff, Acapela

June 13 London, Union Chapel

June 14 Bury St.Edmunds, The Apex

June 15 Shrewsbury, Theatre Severn

June 16 Bury, The Met

June 17 Stirling, Tolbooth

June 18 Glasgow, Cottiers Theatre ​

Here’s that band with one of the standout tracks here, Scapa Flow 1919:

Kris Drever: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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