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If a review of Nick Drake had been written say ten years ago most peoples reaction would have been Nick who? Today his albums are selling better than they ever did when they were first released and his reputation as one of Englands best singer songwriter is growing by the minute.
Unfortunately for us and for Nick Drake, this deserved success came too late for him, Drake died tragically young in 1974 after taking an overdose, he had been suffering from manic depression for some time and possibly the perceived commercial failure of all his music releases worsened his state of mind.
Bryter Layter is Drakes second and best known album, it builds upon the style and sound of his debut Five Leaves Left and has been described as Chamber Folk primarily for its use of stringed instruments (apart from guitars) and its intimate feel.
A difficulty in characterising Drakes music especially on this recording possibly lies at the heart of his lack of commercial and critical recognition. Drake never fitted in. His music although sounding like it was part of the folk revival of the late 60s and early 70s didnt have any roots in what most would call traditional folk music, his compositions were not political in nature he wasnt protesting against anything much at a time where it was fashionable to do so in folk circles.
At the other end of the spectrum he didnt quite fit in to the singer songwriter genre of the time which included people like Cat Stevens, Elton John and Joni Mitchell who were all more firmly based in the folk or rock tradition. If anything Drake could be aligned with artist such as John Martyn who was a friend of Drakes and whose most enduring song Solid Air is a tribute written to Drake shortly after he had tragically died. Martyn had more folk roots than Drake but by the early 70s he like Drake was expanding his horizons and using a variety of different sounds in his music.
Hazey Jane II
At The Chime Of The City Clock
One Of These Things First
Hazey Jane I
Bryter Layter released in 1970 is a clear progression from his debut the rather melancholy Five Leaves Left but there are signs that even at this early stage in his career Drake was prepared to take risks with his music.
The use of a variety of unusual instrument (unusual for a folk/pop record of the time) such as Flute, horns, Cello, Viola and harpsichord all lend the music as mystical ethereal quality. This is most evident of tracks like Hazy Jane I and II, which lift the album out of its more contemplative mournful sound.
Drakes voice on this album is also distinctive, he has very English diction every word pronounced fully, another refreshing aspect to the sound at a time when many English artist were singing in the conventional put-on American accent. It is surprising to know that someone who has such an expressive way of singing with restrained but strong emotion was actually very disparaging about his own abilities as a singer.
Hopes were high for this album and those involved in its production were convinced that this would be a classic and finally break Drake through into wider mainstream success. Indeed the producers Joe Boyd and John Wood said that Bryter Layter was the only perfect album they ever made.
It is a testament to Nick Drakes reputation amongst fellow artist that the personnel contributing to this project was so distinguished. Richard Thompson of Fairport Conventions plays guitar and John Cale the legendary founding member of Velvet Underground can be heard on Viola, Celeste and Organ on Fly and Northern Sky.
I came to this album rather late like many others I had only heard of Drake being talked about knowingly by serious musos, a well-kept secret amongst them. It wasnt until in the 90s on the release of a tribute album Way to Blue that I happened to hear the track Northern Sky that blew me away. Northern Sky is one of the standout tracks on Bryter Layter and is just about a perfect love song. It is one of those tracks that seem familiar from the very first playing an instant classic that you are amazed to find never reached more than a very select few on its first airing. Northern Sky has a dreamy, longing quality to it. It is grounded by a background of rolling and rich piano perfectly complement by Drake gentle soft beautifully spoken lyrics.
I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you're here
Brighten my northern sky
(Some may recognise it from the final scene of the film Serendipity, which again shows Drakes recent emerging mainstream respect.)
Once Id heard Northern Sky I was hooked and listened to as much of Drakes music as I could. Bryter Layter was not a disappointment. Drake proves on this album that hes not a one trick pony, the restrained emotions of songs like Northern Sky and the equally brilliant At the Chime of a City Clock are kept in balance by the livelier almost jazzy feel of Hazy Jane I and II. A totally different sound is found on another track Poor Boy, which involves a much more layer production more akin to a pop song. On this song the chorus a female backing vocal repeating the songs title, almost mocking the singer, counters the pleading tone of Drakes lyrics.
The technical skill of the musicians and producers is evident throughout. Certainly the sound of the album with its mixture of folk ballads tinged with jazz sensibilities and popish complexity is far ahead of its time considering it was released in 1970. Maybe this was the problem for Drake, the fault for his lack of success lay not with his music but with the immaturity of his audience to appreciate such an innovative sound at a time where most music fans associated themselves in very strict delineations of musical taste. Drake fear/dislike of performing live related to his mental state also didnt allow a grass roots fan base for his work to start up compounding the problem.
Drake was a tortured soul and much of this comes out in his music. His songs on Bryter Layter as on his other two albums have a serious disillusioned quality to them even a love song such as Northern Sky has an underlying sadness to it, you feel that his affirmation of love will fall on deaf ears and tragedy will follow.
This feeling of not achieving and longing for something that has now passed you by can be seen in the lyrics One Of These Things First.
I could have been your pillar, could have been your door
I could have stayed beside you, could have stayed for more.
Could have been your statue, could have been your friend,
A whole long lifetime could have been the end.
Again the use of simple piano and guitar coupled with the thoughtful vocals lend the song a melancholy feel.
I dont want to give the impression that the album sounds sad because it doesnt. Knowing the tragic end that was to befall Drake the song take on added poignancy but overall the fell of the music although contemplative and introspective much of the time is still uplifting and the thought that at last Drake has achieved in part the recognition his talent deserves is worth being happy about.
So for those out there who dont know Nick Drake go and listen to Bryter Layter discover a true classic of 70s music and be cheered by the fact that this is one classic that your parents or older sibling probably wont be smug about knowing of before you did.
Bryter Layter can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for £5.97 +p&p (at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2006
Thankfully, by the time of this second album the arrangements have become a lot more subtle and clever and never interfere with the songs themselves. Less songs have strings on them, which is probably a good thing. Instead a brass section often pops up, as well as piano backing and, for one song, backing vocals. This album, musically and lyrically, actually has a much more upbeat feel to it than Drake's debut and, of course, his last album so it seems like a bit of anomaly. I actually bought this album first and originally thought it was his debut. Thus, I originally believed you could chart Nick's decline to his tragic fate. But as it works out in reality it appears he has overcome any obsession with all things dark and is having a bit of fun. Listen to the jaunty "Poor Boy" or his frolicking love song "Hazey Jane II". As I have already said, the arrangement matches Nick's new found optimism with some jaunty, jazz-based accompaniment. "Poor Boy", in particular, is a good example of Drake's innovative jazz-folk that he pioneered (to some extent) on this album. The thing is, though, I don't really like "Poor Boy". The melody is all right but it goes on far too long and the jazz feel (unique though it is) gets a little tiresome. Certainly the squealing saxophone adds very little at all. In fact, I'd say there are two great songs on here. There's the latter but numerically prior "Hazey Jane I" with its crashing cymbals and poignant delivery and also the John Cale (of the Velvet Underground)-driven "Northern Sky". The melody is gorgeous and John Cale's accompaniment on piano and organ and particularly his beautiful celeste is inspired. Two real slices of genius. Helping the flow of the album and also proof of the improved arrangement, are three instrumentals which are perfectly spaced in the album. There is one to start with ("Introduction"
), one in the middle ("Bryter Layter") and a one at the end ("Sunday"). Although the instrumentals ease the flow along beautifully the longer ones do cause you to switch off, occasionally. The final "Sunday", lovely though it is, is a bit long. The title track at least features some squealing flute action. The two "Hazey Jane" songs have little in common bar a title and lyrically, both make reference to Jane. The first ("Hazey Jane II") is far more up tempo, a little like "Time Has Told Me" from the first album except better. The song's melody is superb and thus marks itself out (along with "Hazey Jane I") as one of the best songs on the album. "At the Chime of a City Clock" and "One of These Things First" are both quite similar in that they are up-beat (although not that up tempo) songs, the first with a classy sax solo whilst the latter features prominent piano backing. Both are almost five minutes as well. In fact, "Fly" apart, all the songs (not including instrumentals) are a decent length. Allowing more room for the jazzy accompaniment. Of the two aforementioned songs, there is very little to choose between them but "At the Chime of the City Clock" eases ahead with a more memorable melody. As I have already intimated, "Fly" is quite brief and, as such, is not one the best numbers on here. It's quite nice, though. Thus, a surprisingly upbeat album with superb arrangement that makes strong advances in the realm of jazz-folk.
Nick Drake's second album is in many ways best described by the sleeve art of its digitally remastered issue, which combines that which appeared on the original 1970 release and new photography (or rather old photography, but selected with the hindsight of today). The original artwork presents Drake seated with his guitar, looking uncomfortably at the camera. He has a pair of funky shoes but curiously he has taken them off for the portrait, as though he loves their gaiety but can't quite decide if they suit him - or perhaps they are not even his, just a prop handed to him by the photographer, and that frown upon his face is one of defiance, a refusal to package himself for his audience. Whichever, its awkwardness reflects the music inside. Although this is a more accomplished album than his debut, 'Five Leaves Left', Drake sounds lost on 'Bryter Layter', as though he's making music for others, or for the person he believes he should be. The result is an album that may be beautiful, gregarious and charming, but is also intensely lonely. For that reason I can't love 'Bryter Layter' the way I love 'Pink Moon' an album I believe he was far happier with, and one which shines with personality (and yes, darkness can shine). This is still a remarkable album though, and contains some of the finest songs he ever wrote. It is a less eclectic mix than 'Five Leaves Left', the emphasis firmly on finely orchestrated, acoustic guitar folk rock. Some of them, like the title track and 'Hazey Jane', sound a little dated, but the upbeat eccentricity of 'One of These Things First' and the wistful, elegant 'Hazey Jane II' are beautiful, and demonstrate a rare turn of phrase: "Do you hope to find new ways of doing better than your worst?" If that's not a great line, then I don't know what is. 'At The Chime of the City Clock' i
s the song that drew me to his music for the first time, a song for the city with a lone sax played amongst quiet orchestration, and drums that pass by like traffic in the rain. "The games you play make people say You're either weird or lonely... The city clown will soon fall down, without a face to hide in And he will lose if he can't choose The one he may confide in" Drake wasn't happy in the city, surrounded by the faces of others. I'm not entirely sure he was happy surrounded by the musicians that accompany him on this album, as sometimes there is the impression that his individuality is being repressed here, an individuality that would bloom in his masterpiece, 'Pink Moon'. Worst of all is the ill-advised 'Poor Boy' which, with its loungey tinklings and gospel backing vocal suits Drake about as well as a pair of gold stilettos. Something magical happens though when he plays alongside John Cale. 'Northern Sky' is one of the few love songs he wrote, and Cale's keyboards bring with them a levity that ensures that the lyrics ambiguity is read as optimism rather than doubt: "Oh if you would and you could Come blow your horn on high" In contrast, Cale's viola on 'Fly' ensures that the song is Drake's saddest. It is perhaps the only song I can think of that chokes me with tears every (and I mean every) time I hear it. The strings are strained to the point of breaking, crying like a bird trapped in the chimney of a factory, dying miles from its woodland home. Drake is at his most desperate here, asking for a second chance while knowing himself that he'll be asking for a third, and a fourth until there'll be no-one left to ask. "Please give me a second grace Please give me a second face I've fallen far down the first time around Now I just sit down in your way" The sing
er is walking away from the factories of the city in another photograph. He is smiling to himself as he climbs the rolling green hill, walking back to where he belongs. On the back cover of the CD he stands with his back to the camera, as though insisting on the privacy of some Romantic inner communion with the woodland around him. He stands straight as the oak tree beside him, guitar made of wood in one hand, book made of paper in the other. Judging by its weight, it could be the bible, but I imagine it being the songs of the woodland itself. The sound the wood of the guitar squeaking in his hands, the sound of the pages of the book rustling like leaves - they're all written in there. Two of those songs lie on this album, the singer opening and closing this collection of songs for the city with two pastoral instrumentals, the kind of music Vaughan Williams would have written if he'd been born a folk singer. 'Introduction' develops like a flower growing amongst the dew, all golden light and gentle breeze. In contrast the closing 'Sunday' is stark like the branches of winter, its flute a shrill icy wind. Perhaps a deliberately pessimistic tease on Drake's part, the song outstays its welcome, like all winters do. It is a haunting yet satisfying end.
Nick Drake's second album followed in the comet trail left by his wondrous debut 'Five Leaves Left'. Released in 1970 it shows little sign of ageing and despite being name dropped by all and sundry it largely remains an undiscovered classic. For students of the Belle & Sebastian school of melodic folk there is a seam of material awaiting you from this sadly underachieving (in his lifetime anyway) soul. With Drake's extraordinary predication for not telling things as they are the opening cut is dutifully named 'Introduction'. And what a majestic beginning it is too. The orchestration is as pretty as is imaginable being ably directed by Richard Kirby who was responsible for all the lush arrangements on the album. 'Bryter Later' reveals a large quotient of instrumentals, yet their presence ups rather than slows down the ante. For such a supposed recluse it seems that Drake had little difficulty on counting on help from his contemporaries. For most tracks the acclaimed Richard Thompson fiddles about on guitar while the enigmatic John Cale (the Velvet Underground) adds in piano, organ and celeste asides. Drakes oft conveyed world weariness is beautifully coloured by the jaunty playing. You'll find 'Hazy Jane 11' on 'Way To Blue' (a compilation) so its fluid escapades will hardly be new but that's not to say that they aren't welcome. The Van Morrison type trumpet fest shadows the bouncy percussion and Drake delivers a hearty attempt at vocal hop scotch. 'At The Chime Of A City Clock' is decorated with vast string arrangements and brass appendages that recall late night police dramas. It has a hushed demeanour that is hard to qualify at first, a few listens are required to see through the surface fog. An unusually guarded soul not all that willing to directly open his soul, Nick Drake often paints landscapes and
similes to get his message across. On 'One Of These Things First' we get as close as we're going to get to Drake's troubled interior. As he ponders how he arrived at where he is, he considers whether other roads could have changed the man he turned out to be. Of course this interpretation is subjective but it is revealing to listen to the words sans the wonderful cascading piano accompaniment. Like most prequels 'Hazey Jane 1' like lays the groundwork for the follow up dramas. Operating at the speed of a kite it meanders over a foundation of acoustism and swooping arrangements. At times the orchestral manoeuvres resemble a long forgotten standard but I can't put my finger on it. As soothing as an everlasting cough sweet. The title tracks instrumental forays perfectly convey the seventies, all prim and proper, imagine wandering around London in an ill fitting tweed jacket and beat up brown leather clogs without feeling in the slightest bit embarrassed. The flute playing is exquisite like Jethro Toll himself had dropped in to add his bleak midwinterish two penny's worth. As you try to disseminate 'Fly' you can almost hear Drake struggling to come up with a fresh idea. As the motley ensemble of instruments and vocas finally settles on a singular path it sounds like a celestial apparition. Naive and gloriously enjoyable for this reason alone. As is Drake's want 'Poor Boy' turns out to be a funky gospel jazz hybrid. Perfect music for an over indulging party of pretentious twits bloated on caviar and Ferrero Rocher. While this may sound like ordinary folk like you and me should avoid it then you'd be right. It's pretty naff, out of context among the surrounding beauty, like a chip van parked near a pyramid in Egypt. Order is restored instantly with the breezy effervescence of 'Northern Sky'. Shuffling as shyl
y towards your mind as a bear cub yet possessing more allure than 101 Dalmatians this is the sound of a small waterfall on a cool winter morning. The celeste adds a mystical quality as Drake comes across as the heroic hobbit. Buy the album and become part of his Fellowship. There is something frightening yet alluring about the flute playing that opens the instrumental and closing track 'Sunday'. Conjuring images of being lost on a windswept and lonely mountain the scene is somewhat arrested as the song fills out with the emergence of an ensemble of acoustic guitars and violins. By the end of a hectic journey a bath of goats milk is somewhat spoiled by its lactic disposition. Oh I don't know what I'm talking about either it's just the effect that such spectral music can have on ones imagination. 'Bryter Layter' is surprisingly short, the experience seems to end mid climax. That said for the time it takes to play there are more adventurous directions that your likely to find on most albums. The atmosphere is detached yet alluring, the playing is highly accomplished and the lyrics are intelligent and thoughtful. Little short of a classic then, don't waste any time, your CD player needs a good recalibration.
I don't know if there is a way of starting a review about Nick drake. His songs are so touching that to me no words can describe them. Since I've got no other expressive means I'll give words a try this once.... The life of Nick Drake is such a tragic story of a young man that had so much to give to the poetic and musical realms of the modern world. He had such an amazing way of writing how he felt with such provocative lyrics and sensually warm melodies. I have listened to Bryter Later more times than I can remember. It is his most successful album and his most popular contribution to mainstream music if you can bear to slot it into such a category. Unlike a lot of original material the production staff have not allowed it to stray away from the initial artistic intention behind the songs. Nick Drake is the only musician I have come across which has made me cry. His lyrics have given me support when I most needed it. Without being able to put your finger on it, the whole sound is able to touch you in a way I have never experienced from music before. I have a wide variety of albums but when one songwriter can make the world around me so much more tolerable by invoking a warm feeling of the world around me I have nothing but utmost respect for them. His lyrics feel so natural as does the melodies although you'll find that they only seem simple. Executing them yourself is like trying to write Mozart with deaf ears. 'One of these things first' is a classic song which makes you think of what you could have been instead of a human being. It is also a thought provoking song which makes you realise what you could have been as a human being instead of what you are. Nick Drake takes it further suggesting you could have been any number of inanimate objects like a Clock, a Kettle, a Rock. Who's to say you're not one of these before you land here on Earth? Hazy Jane II is his most
9;commercial sounding tunes on any of the records I have heard and yet it has an intelligent complexity that again makes it sound simple. There seems to be too many words per bar than should be possible and yet Drake fits them all in with seemingly no effort. Fly, Poor Boy and Northern Sky go on to make this one of the best if not THE best album in my collection. Buy it from wherever you can.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Hazey Jane II
3 At The Chime Of A City Clock
4 One Of These Things First
5 Hazey Jane I
6 Bryter Layter
8 Poor Boy
9 Northern Sky