Various Artists
Poor Boy – Songs of Nick Drake
Songlines
2004
C



he would probably have been terribly embarrassed, for a start.

More than that, I always picture him desperate to perform his songs—totally frustrated by his own wretched nerves. In my mind at least, that's what finished him. I imagine he'd hear Poor Boy, a collection of (largely) jazz interpretations of songs by Nick Drake, and be utterly coy about the whole thing—but in secret, deeply troubled. Not least because he was only rarely confident enough to perform for people, but moreover because what some of these people are doing to the songs—what Jason Michas and Chris Gestrin do to "Three Hours" for instance—just isn't very good. They do the unthinkable: a song that in its original incarnation melts a myriad of travel, time travel, caves and slaves for over six minutes, is here extended by a mere minute and a half. And it feels like a lifetime.

Taking a more studied approach to the story of Drake's friend Jeremy Mason and his epic journey to London town, "Three Hours" begins promisingly enough with a jabbering, schizophrenic conversation between double bass, percussion and low-end piano, but soon gives way to jazz cliché and that sterile whiff of motions being gone through that so often accompanies covers going nowhere. Gestrin’s instrumental duet on “One Of These Things First” is far more successful, sticking to the formula employed in the “Three Hours” introduction. Sounding like The Bad Plus minus the psycho drums, the frenetic approach to the melody is genuinely fresh.

Other successful experimentation is found in the epic “For Nick/Horn/Know”. Not only providing Poor Boy’s most challenging interpretations, but also the album’s only original music, this is easily the creative centrepiece of the album. “For Nick” emulates the gentle crashing of waves on a far away beach; two calypso chords strumming through bashed gongs and brushed cymbals, it creates the sound of a paradise Nick himself created with his perfect diction melodies. “Horn” is played out on violin, waves still crashing behind, percussion trying (but not too hard) to establish tempo. Also from Pink Moon, François Houle’s “Know” contrasts the original, five-note dirge with astonishing free-jazz improvisation, from which the original melody—complete with Danielle Hébert’s sober vocals and Brad Turner’s trumpet solos—is born, as sinister as it was thirty-odd years ago when nobody could hear it.

All eyes were bound to be on “Poor Boy” itself though, not only as the title track of the collection, but also as the most blatant jazz arrangement in Drake’s catalogue. Jazz influences are audible in much of his work, which is why much of this album works as well as it does. A similar approach to the original is adopted in the lucid, cool electric guitar riffs, whilst a more pedestrian piano line allows Kate Hammett-Vaughan’s vocal to impress.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Poor Boy, is its delegation of songs between the genders. It’s hard not to think of the speaker in Drake’s songs as a lonesome wanderer, and as such this character is almost undoubtedly a young male. But with vocal duties spread equally between the sexes, Poor Boy displays Nick Drake’s songs as overtly feminine in many cases. In fact, the assignment of Mike Dumovich to the forlorn vocals of “Fly” and “From The Morning” appears to have been a mistake, grating on the listener in a way that Nick couldn’t even if he tried, these vocal performances neither inspire nor interest—they languish.

Poor Boy’s cover versions are executed with varying degrees of success, arguably because, by co-ordinator Tony Reif’s own admission, many of the artists who appear were unfamiliar with Drake’s music when first approached about the project. That doesn’t mean that all of the artists failed to connect with the songs—as Aiko Shimada demonstrates in her ambient, laptop-layered retelling of “’Cello Song”, and Mount Analog’s woozy “River Man”. But in the end, the real star is Nick himself—the very existence of an album such as Poor Boy being further testament to the endurance and malleability of his songs.



Reviewed by: Colin Cooper
Reviewed on: 2004-08-31
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