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Nick Drake – Family Tree

June 21, 2007

I think most fans find it a little unbelievable that Nick Drake has been dead for over thirty years. It is a little hard to believe. For how fresh these songs sound even decades later, it feels like Drake just left a few years ago. For an artist so precious not only to fans but to the entire American folk scene, it is a shame that so little material is in circulation. The era of this monumental artist that fans seem to appreciate most is the “less is more” themed album Pink Moon, which featured, with only one exception on the title track, only Nick Drake and his guitar. That is the spirit of this long winded rarities compilation. Most all of the songs are home recordings featuring only one instrument and vocals, and exceptions are few.

Which is why, in theory, this collection sounds like it should be completely boring. From what I hear, most of these songs can be found on other bootlegs already, and this is more of an official release of the rarities than anything. This is good. I don’t have time to track down bootlegs, let alone more than one from an artist with such a sparse career, so it’s nice to have all sorts of stuff worth having on an official release, with a few completely unreleased songs no less. But either way, calling the album Family Tree was probably misleading. Are Nick Drake rarities so scarce now that they must be created, as performances from Nick Drake’s family? At that, these songs were probably never good enough to be on full albums anyway. Most all of the songs are simple finger picking and slow vocals.

So that sounds pretty dull, and pretty disposable. But fortunately for the casual listener, this collection is simply essential and completely different on your stereo than on paper. For one thing, the low quality of these recordings only adds to the fragility and mystique of many of the songs. And the fact that they are home recordings brings some personal vitality to the songs, sometimes when Nick Drake speaks after the cuts or makes a tiny little mistake. The fact that these songs are not studio recordings only help them. Sometimes, the fuzz in the background sounds like soft rain, and the effect is amazing. Also, the brevity of most of the songs actually helps as well. All the more room for interesting melodic nuances. For collectors, this is not only an official release from the Nick Drake estate, but it also has a lions share (if not all, after all I’m no expert) of the rarities all in one place. But for casual fans, this is a completely lovely triumph in every way.

Stylistically, I’d have to mark these songs as more bluesy than usual. Which really is an area that was not explored before in Nick Drake’s released career. Some of these takes are extremely relaxing and simultaneously fun, like Cocaine Blues, If You Leave Me, and Black Mountain Blues. A good portion of the album is similarly relaxing blues, but there are other areas touched on. Songs like They’re Leaving Me Behind and Rain are simple and wonderful enough to have been on Pink Moon. But there are also some things that one might not consider real, solid material here. It seems as if the Nick Drake estate was trying to milk some of Nick Drake’s more obscure, some would say useless recordings. At first glance, little nuggets such as a poetry reciting called Time Piece (that features no music at all) and a tiny piano recording Paddling In The Rushes seem like they mean nothing at all. But the truth of it is, even this little “filler” songs are simply dropdead gorgeous. Nick Drake has kept up his romantic, emotional style even at home where he has nothing to prove.

Although it may seem like a blemish to include recordings from Nick Drake’s family, they do add to the experience at levels not understandable unless heard. All of these songs are lovely, regardless of who sings them, and the music speaks for itself. Poor Mum, the family recital of Kegelstatt Trio, and the duet of All My Trials are all wonderful. And the best is the ending… After a touching reprise of Come Into The Garden, a girl who I assume to be Nick’s sister wraps up the album with a mindbendingly fragile and wonderful rendition of the classic Try To Remember. It’s almost like staring into a photograph.

For any Nick Drake fan no matter the caliber, Family Tree is an asset. It plays beautifully and delivers some truly classic songs that stand alongside other of the mans great pieces. Twenty eight songs of pure, touching Drake music. Who could ask for more? Although I’d hardly call it a 2007 “album,” it is still one of the best releases of this year. I love reclining on my garage roof during the summer and listening to Nick Drake. These brilliant gems will keep me staring at the blue sky and the stars for a long, long time.

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