Thursday, October 18, 2007

Music Review: Nick Drake's Family Tree, Should I Be Listening To This?

Nick Drake’s posthumous recorded output now surpasses the number of albums he released while on this mortal coil. If the well has not been wrung dry, it’s at least close to being empty of everything except backwash; if any posthumous Drake album is released in the next few years, it most likely will be a duets album with Tupac Shakur.

Family Tree is the latest posthumous Drake release (as of this writing). The album consists primarily of lo-fi (though listenable) recordings from Drake’s parent’s home at Far Leys and recordings made by Drake while studying in France. A duet with Drake’s sister Gabrielle and two songs written and performed by his mother (it’s a family tree, get it?) round out the album. Although most of the songs have long been available on bootleg, this marks the first official release of this material.

It is doubtful that casual Nick Drake fans (if such a thing actually exists) will give this album repeated plays. Many of the tracks are short and unfinished, and the sound is far from perfect. This is, bottom line, an archival piece geared toward hardcore Drake fans. The irony of course is that most such fans have probably heard this material before.

However, this release does have some strengths; for example, it shows Drake at a very early stage in his musical development, before Five Leaves Left had not yet even been recorded. Although early versions of “Way To Blue” and “Day Is Done” from that album are not particularly enlightening, it is nice to hear these early versions, even if they are little more than rough sketches. Another strength of the album is that it reveals Drake’s musical influences at the time, ranging from a bunch of old dead dudes most people probably haven’t heard of (Jackson C. Frank, Blind Boy Fuller, and Robin Frederick), to a living dude who some people have heard of (Bert Jansch), to a living dude everyone has heard of (Bob Dylan). The foundation of the Nick Drake sound (gentle guitar, soft voice, natch) can be heard on this release.

The version of folk standard and Joan Baez-abused “All My Trials” is the most striking performance included. Usually sung as an optimistic ode to liberation, Drake’s performance is quiet, reserved, and defeated. Coupled with Drake’s well documented mental issues and early death, the lyrics “all my trials Lord/will soon be over” take on a far more sinister meaning.

Nevertheless, there is something inherently “dirty” about listening to this release. The listener cannot help but feel a certain amount of guilt in hearing something that was clearly never meant to be heard by anyone outside Drake’s family circle (it’s also possible these recordings had an intended audience of only Drake). Of course, the musician’s tragic death at age 26 adds to this feeling. It’s extremely difficult to approach these songs from outside the context of the musician’s death. At times listening to this album feels like covertly reading a teenage girl’s diary (or blog or e-diary, or whatever kids do nowadays), staring at a woman’s cleavage from across the room, or slowly driving past a car crash.

The commercial release of this album sometimes also smacks of crass opportunism, at a time when Drake’s actual albums are in danger of being buried under an avalanche of mediocre posthumous releases. Drake’s sister Gabrielle even acknowledges as much in the liner notes, written as a letter to her brother: “But now, I am endorsing the publication of an album that I am not at all sure you would have sanctioned.” Like reading the previously released journals of Kurt Cobain, the listener cannot help but sometimes feel like an unwanted intruder when listening to this album. The broader question, which can either be a good one for debate or pure philosophical BS, is whether the general public has a “right” to hear such music. On the one hand, the Nick Drake estate has made the material available for purchase; any blame for whether this album “should” be released could fall squarely of the feet of the Nick Drake estate. On the other hand, many listeners will finish this album and probably feel a little guilty at having listened to it.

Hardcore Drake fans or those lovelorn, melancholy types who still haunt coffeehouses, mumble under their strumming guitars, and stare at their shoes will likely not be disappointed by this release. Those unfamiliar with Nick Drake should still start with Pink Moon and work their way backwards to Bryter Layter and Five Leaves Left. Regardless of how many posthumous Nick Drake releases hit the market, those three albums will remain Drake’s lasting legacy.

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