Music Reviews
Way To Blue - The Songs of Nick Drake

Various Artists Way To Blue - The Songs of Nick Drake

(StorySound Records) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

How do you cover an artist whose arrangements, guitar playing, and vocal style are so well ingrained into the minds of their fans, that the original performances become definitive, and to deviate from them becomes some sort of heresy.  First things first, ignore those people.  They’re just songs for chrissakes, not the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Secondly, don’t go for all that  Beatlemania, “not the real thing but an incredible simulation”, jive.  We have the records if we want to hear the original versions.  If the songs are worth anything, they can hold up and even grow with further interpretation.  This used to be well understood before the days when everyone and their pet salamander was writing songs, seeing it as the only true way of expressing themselves.  We need Sinatra around to splash a highball of Jack and Coke in the faces of these sensitive artists and maybe give them the back of his hand to slap some sense into them.  Old Blue Eyes knew that when he sung I Get a Kick Out of You, the song became just as much his as Cole Porter’s, even though he was the first one to credit the songwriters who gave him the material to work with.

With all this in mind, or perhaps none of it, legendary producer Joe Boyd (hear our interview with him here) has assembled a group of people to interpret the songs of Nick Drake, who was about as sui generis as singer-songwriters get.  The idea was not to mimic Drake (anyway, Elliot Smith was not available – ooooh, bad joke man, especially on a site like this where people take this stuff seriously) but to deliberately go in other, newer directions.  Further, instead of putting an all points bulletin out for Drake submissions, Boyd worked with a core group of performers who had formed the basis of a series of live concerts he has put on in recent years, gathered them together and said play!  The result is a highly unified-sounding tribute record which puts the focus back on the songs rather than Nick’s idiosyncratic way of playing them.  That’s not to say that the arrangements diverge wildly from the originals, in most cases they don’t.  In fact, Robert Kirby’s original string arrangements are used on a couple tracks, including the one he wrote for Which Will which was never used.  Here it is used as the sole accompaniment to Vashti Bunyan’s version, providing something new and old at the same time.  Few try to imitate Nick’s unique finger-picked guitar style, though one who does is Robyn Hitchcock on his psychedelic version of Parasite, which sounds like Drake via Barrett – he must have been in heaven recording this one.  He probably gets the closest of the lot to transcending the “tribute” nature of the project and achieving something that could stop you in your tracks the way Nick could. 

But even if the impact on the whole isn’t transcendent, it’s still a highly enjoyable listen, if only for the reason that these are capable singers, lovingly performing wonderful songs, and under the direction of the guy who first put Nick on the world stage – albeit to deafening silence.  This is a Saturday morning record you can put on and just wallow in while your juices start flowing.  Despite the many fine vocal performances here, one of my favorite moments is the instrumental One of These Things First, with just acoustic bass and piano from Danny Thompson and Zoe Rahman.  They make the most out of the harmonic potential of Drake’s music, with enough verve to keep it out of George Winston territory. 

So to sum up, this may be no grand revelation, but it has its moments, and overall it’s a thoroughly satisfying sit.  I’d say get it for the person on your list that you think might be put off by Nick’s unique style, but then again, who are those people anyway and what’s up with them?  I sure hope they’re family, because your friends you can choose.  Get it for the Drake fan then, who, if they’re not a total hipster purist asshole will probably dig it just fine.