Next up for pianist Christopher O’Riley, after his solo piano interpretations of Radiohead and, less successfully, Elliott Smith, is Nick Drake. It’s a fine choice, though if O’Riley continues in this vein and we get Bright Eyes or, God forbid, Arcade Fire reinterpretations where will we be? A blossoming little business for O’Riley, maybe. But far from capitalization on a novelty, the pianist continues to bring a more rigorous classicism to some of the most warmly familiar indie artists of the past few decades.
It’s not a surprise that the selection of artist on which to base a solo piano recital (which is what each O’Riley disc amounts to) is essential to the album’s success. So, how does Nick Drake measure up? The artist that successive generations of college kids have discovered, whose melancholy, gentle songs and flowing, finger-plucked guitar technique hold such hypnotic power? The artist’s hypnotism is perhaps the key: it is in fact pianistic. Listen to a Debussy piano piece, something impressionistic, miniature and/or grandiose like “La Mer” or “The Sunken Cathedral”, and compare. One of the things that makes Drake appealing is these serene repetitions of rhythm and harmony that lend his songs a gravity and a static quality. It is difficult to recreate this in an arrangement for solo piano, which relies on repetitive percussions of notes to create both atmospheric and volume changes.
Speaking of comparisons, since this is an album of covers, let’s make some: “One of These Things First”, which introduced Drake to a larger audience after it was included on the Garden State soundtrack, is deceptively simple. Over a flurry of the artist’s characteristic finger-picked guitar, the song is suffused with yearning—all “could have been”. In O’Riley’s hands the song is turned into an impressionistic poem, the melody hidden beneath a flurry of notes and shifting harmonies. It’s a beautiful and sophisticated arrangement, one of the highlights of Second Grace. A strength is that it quickly shifts from the repetitive simplicity of the original, journeying into shifting moods and harmonies. Every so often we return to the original’s theme, reaffirming this as a series of mini-variations inextricably tied to that lilting ballad.
It’s not surprising that the greatest proportion of the covers on Second Grace are taken from Bryter Layter, Drake’s most orchestral and fullest-sounding album. In his comprehensive (if adjective-heavy) liner notes, O’Riley says “Northern Sky” was the first song he ever heard of Nick Drake—and the song that made him fall in love with the artist. The song itself is a simple and heartfelt love song. It’s serene and beautiful. Drake’s muddy voice has a lightness without a cloak of affectation that hasn’t been often heard since. O’Riley places his arrangement at the center of the album, but it doesn’t fully shine. Instead, we get another pattering fantasia with a hidden exposition of the theme and an ambitious harmonic exploration. Which is all good, but where’s the song’s natural peak:
Would you love me for my money
Would you love me for my head?
Would you love me through the winter
Would you love me ‘til I’m dead?
The last comparison I’ll highlight is “Fly”. The original is simple and wonderful, a syncopated cello a playful counterpoint to Drake’s depressing words “Please, give me second grace… I’ve fallen far down, the first time around.” He almost speaks into the microphone, so intimate and personal is his revelation. It’s hard to imagine any interpretation living up to this, and though O’Riley’s interpretation adds some interest with a bass melody and simpler, block chords, the range of tricks is necessarily limited. At this point, four discs into the pianist’s career, you could be forgiven for suspecting you’ve heard most of them before.
Still, O’Riley often manages to capture Drake’s serenity and, more importantly, his hypnotism. On the best of these songs, the self-imposed time limit of sticking close to that of the original song seems like an undue limitation. We want these fascinating etudes to continue, to explore more of these themes and spin out their own secondary subjects, weave them in, making the inevitable return more sweet, more richly deserved But despite best efforts, these arrangements blend together much as, sometimes, Drake songs can themselves. And if the piano movements are a little more chaotic, a little more hyperactive, and a little less hypnotic than the originals, it’s only due to their increased harmonic complexity.
Second Grace is another set of solid, now-characteristic compositions. Put it on, and you probably won’t be bothered by this flowing music’s limitations—the soft, lullaby-like songs make everything smoother, easier to take.