By Various Artists
Nick Drake is certainly more famous now than he ever was during his short life. Drake died of an overdose of a prescribed drug in the family home in Cambridge in 1974. He was just 26 and virtually unknown, his poor record sales hampered by a reluctance to perform live. Yet nearly 40 years later artists queue around the block to claim him as a major influence. Brad Pitt is a big fan and curated a radio documentary of this extraordinary guitarist and singer-songwriter nine years ago. Recently, Jake Bugg produced an impressive version of Hazy Jane II for Radio Two.
What made him so good? Firstly, Drake was an exceptional guitarist and used unusual tunings. Not for him the standard E-A-D-G-B-E, instead he was constantly searching for different ways to create beautiful melodies usually in a minor key. His dreamy voice and lyrics capture both the English landscape and a feeling of alienation.
Way To Blue - The Songs of Nick Drake is a labour of love for Joe Boyd, the man who produced two of his albums between 1969-70 (Five Leaves Left and Bryter Later) and who has been contributing to keeping Drake's memory and incredible talent alive with various projects since 2009. This album of covers by many established artists has a studio feel, but was actually recorded live at two concerts curated by Boyd at The Barbican, London (2010), and Melbourne (2011).
It's taken American Boyd a long time to release this album, but so meticulous is the production that you're only sure it's a live recording when the applause kicks in at the end of the final track, Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren's decent stab at Pink Moon.
For those of us who have to be satisfied with Drake's three albums, this CD is a welcome addition to the canon. As you'd expect Scott Matthews, the modern-day Drake, takes centre stage for a couple of tracks and does them both justice. Place to Be is given special Matthews treatment with harmonica and slide guitar, although his voice is more Jeff Buckley than Drake in patches. Close your eyes and When the Day is Done could be Drake himself.
Luluc, an Aussie folk duo I'd never heard of before, produce simple but elegant and melancholic versions of Things Behind The Sun and Fly, Zoe Rendell bringing a Nico-ish timbre to both tracks. Not everything hits the mark though. Krystle Warren's gospel version of Time has Told Me doesn't quite ring true, while Green Gartside (Leeds-based Scritti Politti) lacks vocal range in delivering Fruit Tree. Vashti Bunyan, who actually knew Drake, is perhaps too winsome on Which Will. The jazzy Poor Boy, which is certainly at the back end of my favourite Drake tracks, doesn't get much better in the hands of Shane Nicholson.
But when some of these artists get it right they get it right. For most the undoubted jewel in the crown is a magnificent rendition of Black Eyed Dog, a metaphorical song about Drake's depression, which is breathtakingly brought to life in the hands of Lisa Hannigan. This powerful and uplifting version knocks spots of Drake's sparse original.
Topping the lot though is the criminally underrated Robyn Hitchcock, whose psychedelic and eerie version of Parasite has been played to death in my house. It's led me to revisit some of the fantastic Syd Barrett covers he's done in the past and a great version of Pink Floyd's Astronomy Domine he performed in Israel. Hitchcock was just made for the lilting, sad songs of Drake and the eccentric Barrett, and he delivers a beauty here.
There's no doubting the passion all these artists have for Drake's music and the arrangements by Kate St John and the late Robert Kirby, who was a classmate of Drake at Cambridge University, are a joy.
For those unfamiliar with Drake's recordings I'd recommend 1994's Way to Blue - An Introduction to Nick Drake, but this similarly titled album is an interesting indulgence for those who will never hear anything new from the troubled mind of an English treasure and genius.