Keith James - The Songs of Nick Drake
It is a question I sometimes ask myself when I listen to the music of Nick Drake. If I had been alive in the early seventies, would I have been one of the few that appreciated him? I have a suspicion that, whatever I might think of my music radar, I would have been too busy mourning The Beatles or getting down to Led Zeppelin to notice the three very different albums Drake released between 1969 and 1972.
But what I can never understand is why? Why was he so criminally overlooked? In his short time on Earth he produced three, very different albums. The folk-centred grandeur of "Five Leaves Left". The very English, almost jolly at times "Bryter Layter". And the impossibly bleak and introspective "Pink Moon". Three albums that conjure up three very different moods in my mind, but all near to perfection in their own way. My father swears to be a music fan and in the late sixties had sideburns to prove it, but after I first heard Nick Drake I had to view his claims in a different light. Sure, he had all The Beatles albums on original release. He even liked a bit of Tim Buckley. But how could he possibly let this pass him by?
But sadly, pretty much everybody did; in his lifetime Drake only sold a handful of albums and it is only since his death in 1974 that he has started, slowly, to get the reputation he deserves. Many over the years have championed the cause, from The Dream Academy in the 1980's, and people like Paul Weller and Peter Buck. In 2004 he sold more albums than in any other year. Last month Trevor Dann published "Darker than the Deepest Sea", a biography that attempts to make sense of the mystery of Drake. A better read is Patrick Humphries book, an incredibly detailed, almost anal account of the enigmatic guitarist. But it is not this alone that keeps the myth of Nick Drake going. It is the songs - beautiful, tender and timeless, true classics of English folk.
Also keeping the flame alive, and concentrating on these songs, is musician Keith James. For the past few years he has toured the country over six times, to packed venues, performing "The Songs of Nick Drake". He himself admits that if he wanted, he could make quite a happy living doing just this. This CD captures his own representation of twelve of Drakes songs. We get five songs from "Five Leaves Left", three from "Bryter Layter", and two from "Pink Moon". We also get two tracks recorded after Pink Moon, only included posthumously on compilations.
First of all, when listening to this album, not once did I ever think "what a shameless cash-in". I do not see Keith James as an opportunist, more an extremely talented guitarist who cares passionately for music and for these songs. This really comes across in his skilful playing. Many have commented just how difficult it is to play some of Drake's songs. Indeed, when performing live, James has to have three guitars, all with different tunings, to do a set. I really get the impression that Keith James is a fan of Drake's work, and on the whole performs out of admiration and respect.
The album starts with "Fruit Tree", a song many see almost as Drake's mission statement - 21 at the time he wrote it, but already thinking that he won't be appreciated until dead. It is performed beautifully; gentle acoustic with a light percussive backing and some muted electric guitar. Also great is "Pink Moon", a completely different arrangement to the original, the bleakness removed, transformed into a sparkling piece of music and a standout track on the album. "Day is Done" is also skilfully performed, subtle guitar picking against a soft bass.
"Northern Sky" works less well, but this is probably more down to the perfection of the original recording. "Three Hours" is given a chugging beat and some blues licks, giving body and passion to the arrangement. "One of These Things First" is also impeccably performed, different to Drake's in that it is much more stripped down, no fussy tinkling piano, just James and his guitar.
Spoiling things somewhat though is "Black-Eyed Dog", a poor version that has none of the harrowing torment of the original. The guitar also sounds sloppy, far too choppy and inconsistent. The other 1974 song, "Rider on the Wheel", works much better, the vocal warm and bright against the guitar. Final track "Things Behind the Sun" though is just wonderful, an excellent way to end the album with just a brilliant song.
At only twelve songs long, this album does seem a little short. A few more songs, especially from "Pink Moon", would not have gone amiss. However, what we have here is performed with great skill and would appeal to any fans of Nick Drake. This, however, is not the place to start if you have not encountered the man himself. There is no substitute for the original, and if you have never heard him, I strongly recommend you remedy that. You can start at any album, they are all excellent; but my opinion is to start at Five Leaves Left, and listen to them in the order that they were released. Each of them takes you by the hand and encapsulate the mood of the singer at that time, a voyage you will never regret taking. But, for those who have already been there, this album will provide a welcome diversion.