Astonishing revalidation of Nick Drake, transporting his craft into a new century, interpretations with love, respect and individuality. Marvellous.
Release Date: 7th July 2023
Format: CD / Vinyl / 7″ Vinyl Collection / Digital
In the near fifty years since his death, each generation has come, in turn, to pay tribute to his memory and his talent, each wave seemingly greater than the last. This always compounds the tragedy of the singer-songwriter, dying by his own hand at 26, seemingly unloved and uncherished at the time. That is, other than by his friends and contemporaries, as outlined in the recent biography, Nick Drake: The Life, by Richard Morton Jack, which would make a great companion piece to this enchanting collection of cover versions. Along with, of course, his original triad of releases.
The brainchild of Cally Callomon, Manager of the Nick Drake Estate, and Jeremy Lascelles, CEO of Chrysalis Records and the co-founder of Blue Raincoat Music, who now own the iconic label, it would be asking too much for this to have been released on Island records, with the pink label, as had Drake himself been, but you can’t have everything.
With an intriguing roster of musicians called upon to deliver, covering many genres and moods, the one thing that is certain is the quality of the material, it always a bit angsty to wonder how the disparate souls featured might tackle these songs. And with such varied contributors as Ireland’s angry Fontaines D.C. to the chill cool of Meshell Ndegeocello, from polished hands such as David Gray to bright up and comings like Katherine Priddy, these barely touching the surface of this 23 song collection.
Split into 4 seasons to reflect the ever changing seasons of his Tanworth-in-Arden homeplace, so integral to the story and to his swings of mood, it starts as it ends, with the vocal harmonies of London Americana quartet, the Wandering Hearts. Voices, in a foreshortened taster, sets the mood for the project, which then kicks off proper with the Irish post-punks, the song pre-released, thus reassuring any ears as to the perhaps unusual choice. Of course, their interpretation of Cello Song is no mellow mood music, as they transform it into a vibrantly elegant jangle, evocative of a Hibernian version of Arthur Lee’s Love. It is a triumph, frankly, against the odds, and I love it. There is even cello in it, a doomy 60s riff that drives the song forward.
Camille Camille is a Belgian artist, and she gives a buoyantly breathless approach to Hazey Jane II, propelled by chunky guitar and acoustic bass. Not a game changer but an uplifting delivery. Which makes the electro-jazz of Mike Lindsay’s Saturday Sun all the more remarkable. With muted woodwinds and shimmery beats, seldom has the mood of a balmy weekend afternoon been better conveyed, with Guy Garvey channelling the whole Ray Davies into the equation, finding a link between the two disparate yet quintessentially English songwriters. The electrical storm at the end feels seasonally so apt. A combination of Bombay Bicycle Club and the Staves polish off Road with an evocative Laurel Canyon vibe, but it takes Lets Eat Grandma to up further the stakes, with a gauntly beautiful From The Morning, synth and strings, together with primitive drum machine, the frame for the simple charm of the vocal. David Gray closes this first season, his familiar tones and the arrangement of Place To Be harking back to his own breakthrough, and his notestretching draws all the poignancy out to the max.
A bit of a motorik is gifted the John Parish and Aldous Harding rendition of Three Hours, adding a greater sense of urgency not apparent in the original, with little flurries of keyboard building on the anticipation imbued. The duet voices work well together, the slightness of Parish’s delivery offset by Hardings glorious sweetness. Eagerly anticipated, Stick In The Wheel ply their idiosyncratic wares for a deeply hypnotic Parasite, the autotune eerie and disarming, the beats foreboding. This is to be proving a remarkable album. Time Has Told Me is clearly one of the songs, and has. deep footprint to fill, Ben Harper giving an attractive country blues sheen to it, his voice as smokily warm as I ever recall, the slightly lower timbre suiting him.
Emile Sandé, with her actually similar voice, reminds us how much we have missed her, with a trip-hop ambience instilled into One Of These Things First, otherwise interfering little with as it was written, drip feeding ever more soul into it, until it becomes near gospel. Trumpet might not be the sound you expect to introduce Karine Polwart and Kris Drever, but these accomplished folkies show they are as relaxed with light jazz as with their usual oeuvre, and it is an unexpected pleasure, with Northern Sky being another signature song, requiring the utmost of care, duly delivered. Phil Cardwell’s trumpet is immaculate. It is then up to Self Esteem to impress her worth on a wider audience, closing this season with Black Eyed Dog, with Craig Armstrong’s usually reliable scaffolding. As an agnostic to Ms. Taylor’s appeal, I sense more style than substance, a first false step in this project.
A brief reprise of Road, in acapella form, beckons in the third section, maybe as a palate cleanser, for Nadia Read to be supplying a sunny tropical vibe to Poor Boy, almost counter-intuitively so, but no less effectively, with a touch of, sorry, Nadia, Sade Adu. Phoebe Bridgers acolyte Christian Lee Kitson is up next, along with Lincolnshire siren, Elanor Moss. Starting straight, with accomplished guitar and harmony vocals, Which Will gradually expands, Moss’s vocals keening over and above Kitson’s more conventional delivery. It passes muster, suffering only from the company kept; I’d like to hear more from each. Skullcrusher, aka Helen Ballentine, knows her Drake, having released a song, Song For Nick Drake, in 2021. I fear her cover of Harvest Breed slips just a little too far into the ether, however much Gia Margaret’s piano tries to keep it grounded. Again, it is the surrounding quality that diminishes, more than the iteration per se.
So, having sometimes accused Katherine Priddy of the same wispiness, with some relief I can report her I Think They’re Leaving Me Behind is unctuously glorious, the Kirby-esque strings perfect to adorn her delicate yet strong vocal. Actually, altogether very Denny, uncertain if there is higher praise. This season seems populated heavily with female singers outwith my acquaintance, with AURORA being another. From Norway, she has a high and pure voice, ably suited to give a striking and spooky Pink Moon, electronic textures awash behind her clarion call of a voice. Another discovery and another high class cover of another signature song. It’s brief and leaves goosebumps. Joe Henry closes this quarter, his husky vocal a little out of kilter with the singers preceding, it taking some dreamy saxophone and the participation of Ndegeocello to raise it above the otherwise slightly humdrum performance of Time Of No Reply.
Into the final segment with a confession offering my uncertainty as to which might be spring or summer, a chill, almost inevitably, straying into each. The other biggie in the Drake canon has to be River Man, this being dealt to Lesley Feist, along with Famous Blue Cable, I guess the houseband for the label. A languid and jazzy amble through, it is fine, but neither shows off the singer to her best, nor the song. Which certainly isn’t the case as Liz Phair picks up and runs with Free Ride, giving more sass than Drake ever seemed to show, an altogether spunky version that lingers. Is that sitar in the mix? if so, for once, it doesn’t kill the atmosphere.
Philip Selway is getting to be better known for his soundtrack work than his day job, as drummer for Radiohead. You would think, therefore, his take on Fly would be a cert, with, sadly, it coming across as a pastiche of Peter Gabriel, at his dullest worthiness. (And I love Peter `Gabriel…) Never mind, the thing about this record is that the low points are few and, even then, fairly shallow, with John Grant picking up the baton with his confident and competent hand. Day Is Done is suitably dark and dramatic, his voice a deep brown immersive broth of an instrument, an undoubted showstopper that brings tears, unbidded. And I mean drama, not an iota of melodrama creeping in, he railing back on any such excess. Fabulous. Which leaves only the recording to end as it began, with the longer version of Voices, winding things up in a way as to leave the sensation of time well spent, and insatiable need to play the songs again, but in their original format.
I accept I can get carried away in the heat of any moment, with many albums brighter in the moment than they later last. This is, I am convinced, different, and is shouting to be the compilation of the year. No fawning karaoke present here. The occasional false step seems inconsequential within the whole, and the whole is a marvel. Buy it!
Difficult to choose a favourite, but let’s go with, today at least, with Fontaines D.C., if only for the unexpected pleasure of their delivery: