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Nick Drake - Family Tree (Bonus Track Version) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007
ImageNick Drake is a musical puzzle who, if you exclude Robert Johnson, is unparalleled in his ability to evoke a sadness that can be both inviting and mystifying. Far beyond his obvious musical talents as a guitarist, singer and songwriter, his very life has moved beyond the obvious to take on the myth and/or classical tragedy of a tortured genius unrecognized during his lifetime (think Van Gogh). Family Tree, a release of his demos, home recordings and family tapes, is another piece of the puzzle. It fits easily, filling in large portions of the missing picture.

I want to be clear from the start: Family Tree initially seems to be a collection primarily for Nick Drake aficionados or obsessive completists. Many of the cuts are very lo-fi, and the home recorder hiss on “They’re Leaving Me Behind” or the creak of an accidental door opening on Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” would probably put a casual listener off, but believe me, if you stay with it you’ll ultimately be rewarded. And for the die-hard Drake fan there’s a treasure of small clues to be found and discoveries to be had.

In listening to Family Tree you realize how amazing a guitarist Nick Drake was. Listening to these raw recordings takes you beyond the mythic haze of his solitary life and the mystery of his lonely death to reveal a finger-picking genius of stunning proportions. Listen to his take on Robin Frederick’s “Been Smokin’ Too Long,” or Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” and you’ll find yourself asking, who’s the other guitar player? Knowing it is Drake by himself gives new meaning to the story of his incessant practicing. His mother Dolly, who sings in a traditional English music hall style on two of his songs, “Poor Mum” and “Do you Ever Remember?,” has said she would hear him up all night playing, innocently saying that she thought that he wrote his best melodies in the early hours. With this, his story becomes more real and a little bit of the haze lifts away, to show a man who practiced day and night in order to be perfect. And then it is easier to understand how, as he sunk into the despair of mental illness, he would walk away from live performances. Unable to match the perfection he expected and heard in his head, he retreated from the world.

Drake’s voice on Family Tree is as pure, and sometimes sullen, as a fan would expect, but on the traditional blues numbers you’re presented with a surprise. A little sweeter, maybe even a little more flexible, sometimes approaching falsetto, he almost swings as he joyously works through numbers such as the Reverend Gary Davis’ “Cocaine Blues.” The affectation of his pronunciation of the word “cocaine” may be a bit distracting to an American audience, but I imagine it is no more so than Jackson Brown’s oh-so-California Running On Empty version is to Brits.

Fans of Drake’s have heard many of these songs in bootleg versions over the years (the bonus track edition of Family Tree has a very generous 29 cuts) and have already been able to compare the studio recordings of Five Leaves Left’s “Day is Done” and “Way to Blue” to those on this release. As beautiful as the originals and their string arrangements are, I prefer these two raw recordings. And Drake’s solo piano rendition of “Way to Blue” has taken its place next to “Road,” from Pink Moon, as one of my favorite songs.

Even though there is nothing as haunting, or as gratifying creatively, as “Black Eyed Dog” from the Time of No Reply compilation, Nick Drake’s Family Tree proves to be a look into his literal and creative genealogy. The family’s musical talent is on display with a quick reading of a Mozart Trio for clarinet, viola and piano, and the joy in the recording is evident, something that anyone familiar with the Drake mythos wouldn’t expect from any sort of release with his name attached.

And when Drake sings a duet with his sister Gabrielle on the traditional “All My Trials,” the hours of practice are evident, even if the harmonies are a bit ragged at times. “All My Trials” sounds as if they’d heard It’s A Beautiful Day’s “White Bird” and decided to do it one better. It’s alternately sublime and clunky and fun to listen to because suddenly he’s a guy recording with his sister, and not the stuff of legend.

And so it goes with Family Tree. Although not evident at first, Drake’s family has done him a great service in collecting and putting out these recordings. He becomes all the more human as he plays piano while his mother sings, or clears his throat during the beautiful “Winter is Gone.” His story, talent and legacy are served not only by the blossoming genius that Family Tree puts on display, but also by its flaws. For each painful moment of an artist stretching out (“Time Piece”), there’s evidence of what is to come (“Blossom” or “Come Into the Garden”).

In the end, Family Tree fills in large sections of the Nick Drake puzzle. Things are clearer, the story fleshed out, and his legacy as an artist more clearly revealed, right there in the rough pieces. The tragedy of his story, his illness, and ultimate fate, grow more profound, and these recordings make you want to revisit his studio work, especially Pink Moon, where his stark, lonely genius was at its height and his ability to cope with the world near its nadir. We’ll never be able to see the entire picture; many of the pieces were buried along with him. But with Family Tree the myth becomes more human, the mystery less cloudy, and the pain of a young man dead too soon all the more real. The inherent sadness long attributed to Nick Drake actually becomes our sadness. It is real, and clutches at our hearts.

The sound of Family Tree is a roller coaster ride. Sometimes clear and bright, other times filled with hiss or tape warble, it’s clearly evident you’re listening to ‘70s-era home recordings. This is a recording best listened to on your home sound system, meaning keep it out of your car. The enclosed space and proximity to the car speakers coupled with the tape hiss will drive you absolutely crazy. I imagine that for the engineers it came down to a choice between noise reduction and the high end of the original recordings. I’m glad they chose the high end. Interestingly enough, the piano (despite the tape warble) is in tune but his guitar goes out of tune on a couple of songs. That, as they say, is just plain weird. If you’re a decent guitar player and you listen through headphones, you may decide to take up the tuba. If you’re a singer/guitarist, all hope may be lost. I understand that the re-mastered and remixed Fruit Tree box set is going to be re-released later this year. Like the White Album, it looks like I’ll have to buy it once again.

Extra Features
The extra feature(s) on Family Tree consists of the cut “Betty and Dupree” (originally recorded by Brownie McGee, among others) which, surprisingly, is the eighth cut on the bonus track version. I bought the download specifically because I wanted this song along with the others. If you buy the CD you’ll miss out. There’s no digital booklet to go along with the download though, and I would have liked some pretty pictures. I think all downloads should have PDF booklets, don’t you?

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