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Extended Analysis

Poor Boy: Songs of Nick Drake

By Published: October 23, 2004
Various Artists
Poor Boy: Songs of Nick Drake
Songlines Recordings

Singer/songwriter Nick Drake passed away 30 years ago, but his time-defying songs have gained their iconic stand only after his early death at only 26 years old. Though he released only three albums during his lifetime (1969's Five Leaves Left , 1970's Bryter Later , 1972's Pink Moon ) and another posthumous compilation ( Time of No Reply , 1986) that contained his final sessions and unreleased material surfaced after his death, his songs defined the gloom and doom era of British folk scene of the early seventies. His songs are still being interpreted by diverse artists such as Lucinda Williams ("Which Will," Sweet Old World , 1992), Brad Mehldau ("River Man," Songs: The Art of the Trio, Vol.3 , 1998), Calexico ("Clothes of Sand," Aerocalexio , 2000) and Andy Bey (again "River Man," Shades of Bey , 1998), all testifying to the endurance of Drake's legacy.

Poor Boy does not aim to be another nostalgic tribute that supposes to explore the chilling, sad beauty of Drake's songs, as an "icing on the cake," or matching up Drake's rich musical ideas "in the musical cliches of the moment," to quote Songlines label head and Poor Boy Producer Tony Reif. Reif wanted to elaborate on Drake's legacy, in order to suggest new perspectives and sometimes even abstractions of these songs, detaching the new interpretations from the bleak original versions, referencing them only briefly and stretching them into new terrains, but always honoring Drake's spirit.

Poor Boy was initiated five years ago after a tribute concert that was held in Vancouver, and this disc presents fourteen interpretations of Drake's songs by local musicians from the lively musical communities of Vancouver and neighboring Seattle, with one exception by Ian Masters (and his Friendly Science Orchestra), who resides in Japan. Some of the artists, like jazz vocalists Kate Hammett-Vaughan and Danielle Hebert or singer Jason Michas, confessed that they only became familiar with Drake's songs after they were asked to contribute to this project. Half of the songs in this tribute are performed by female vocalists, stressing the feminine side in Drake's writing.

The opening song, "Cello Song," sets the atmosphere. The pure folky vocals of Aiko Shimada are backed by the guitars of Bill Horist, imitating Drake's odd tunings, with programmed pulsating percussion by Tucker Martine. Kate Hammett-Vaughan transforms "Clothes of Sand" and "Poor Boy" into dark jazz standards, abandoning the upbeat bossa nova of the original "Poor Boy" version, and backing pianist Chris Gestrin and bassist Simon Fisk suggest an instrumental free improvisation on themes of "One of These Things First." Gestrin performs "Three Hours" with singer/songwriter Jason Michas, demonstrating again how Drake's distinct phrasing and the myriad musical influences that he absorbed can enable so many re-interpretations of his songs. The beautiful vocal duet of Robin Holcomb and Veda Hille on "Hanging on a Star" follows the fragility that Michas suggested. Clarinetist Francois Houle elaborates Holcomb and Hille's version of "Road" with a tasteful clarinet collage.

Tony Wilson arranged a 14-minute haunting suite suite with the only original composition here, "For Nick," integrating it with themes from Drake's instrumental "Horn," backed tastefully by Francois Houle on clarinet, Brad Turner on trumpet, Jesse Zubot on violin, Peggy Lee on cello and Dylan van der Schyff on drums and percussion, culminating in a gentle funky performance of the short song "Know" by Danielle Hebert. Ian Masters' seemingly indifferent vocal delivery of one of Drake's soul searching songs, "Parasite," with spooky background sounds created by Ishigami Kazuya, drains the song from its melancholic sentiment but floods it with unsettling feeling. Singer/songwriter Jesse Sykes performs a dreamy version of "River Man" and multi-instrumentalists Ian Moore and Eyvind Kang transform the original atmospheric "Black Eyed Dog" into an atmospheric Indian raga, with sitar, tremolo guitar and Randal Dunn's loops.

Sometimes it's too cerebral, leaving out other songs that seek such interpretations ("Time Has Told Me," "Pink Moon" or even "Which Will"), but Poor Boy offers a thought-provoking perspective of Drake's legacy that clearly transcends his era and sometimes even his melancholic image.

Tracks and Personnel: Cello Song- Bill Horist & Aiko Shimada; Clothes of Sand- Kate Hammett-Vaughan; One of These Things First- Cris Gestin & Simon Fisk; Three Hours- Jason Michas & Chris Gestin; Hanging on a Star- Robin Holcomb & Veda Hille; For Nick/Horn/Know- Francois Houle 6 + Danielle Hebert; Poor Boy- Kate Hammett-Vaughan; Fly- Mike Dumovich; Parasite- Friendly Science Orchestra; Road- Veda Hille & Robin Holcomb/Francois Houle; Things Behind the Sun- Bill Horist & Sam Mickens; River Man- Mount Analog & Jesse Sykes; Black eyed Dog- Ian Moore & Eyvind Kang; From the Morning- Mike Dumovich

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