A Portrait of the Folk Singer As a Young Man
It’s a good time to be a completist. A batch of unreleased Elliott Smith recordings was just released, not to mention countless remasters and re-releases by classic bands tacking on enough bonus tracks to keep you busy for a long while, and of course the Internet where, if you spend enough time, you can find anything that the bigwigs have decided isn’t worth releasing yet. And riding this wave is Family Tree, a batch of rare home recordings by Nick Drake.
Drake’s posthumous recognition (even more so these days, post-Volkswagen commercials) has been interesting to see. On the one hand, countless musicians—from Lucinda Williams to Lou Barlow—have cited Drake as an influence, and Drake’s music has popped up successfully in films, most notably The Royal Tenenbaums. But there is another side to this coin: oversaturation. Drake released only three albums when he was alive, but countless posthumous releases comprised of unreleased tracks and popular hits have graced record store shelves for years. Time of No Reply, Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake, and Made to Love Magic are all well-intentioned, enjoyable releases. But with each compilation, the mystery that is such a huge part of Drake’s brilliant original albums is becoming watered down.
So, Family Tree is a risky release, and coming nearly three years after Made to Love Magic it could at first seem suspiciously timely. But, upon listening, this new Drake compilation comes across as more of a labor of love than probably any of his other posthumous albums. The disc is comprised of twenty-eight tracks culled from stacks of tapes Drake’s family has held onto over the years. And the way these songs are put together is meant to paint the picture of the folk singer as a young man. The first four songs are rough-cut dirges, almost Jandek-ian, and set the ominous tone of a young Drake trying out this whole music thing. These tracks are inessential on their own, but interesting in the context of a young man starting his craft.
The bulk of the album is spent on Drake’s renditions of traditional blues tracks and a handful of covers. There isn’t much of his original lush folk stylings to be found here, mostly gritty blues, and the results are pretty strong. Old songs like “Black Mountain Blues” and “Been Smokin’ Too Long” are well-served by his honeyed voice and skillful playing. Four of the songs Drake recorded were originally penned by singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank. Songs like “Blues Run the Game” and “Milk and Honey” are the most well-known of Frank’s work, and Drake’s covers are faithful and heartfelt. It is interesting to hear Drake sing other people’s songs as the sadness that was so much a part of his own work is not lost at all in these renditions. You can hear the young Drake’s hurt all over these recordings, and the large amount of blues songs here casts his work in a new and compelling context. Once you get to the end of the record, where most of Drake’s original songs are (some of which ended up on Five Leaves Left in different forms), the influences are clear. His originals here are more folky than the covers, but the blues are still up front and center in his guitar playing, and it is clear that Drake is still working out his own style as these recordings close.
The sequencing of the album is problematic, however. While the order works, there is no space left between each song. No sooner does the last note of one track sound than the next one has begun. These songs don’t get the space they need, and the lasting thrum of some great blues songs gets lost a little. One could argue that a couple of these tracks, including one or two that are just snippets of songs, could be cut in favor of giving the music here the room it needs to be at its most potent. There are moments where you can hear Drake mumble to himself or laugh in a track, and those add an interesting, ghostly element to the album (which, in the end, probably serves his mythology more than his music). The completists will eat this one up, and they should. It’s a solid set of recordings, lovingly put together. But to call them essential would be taking it a little too far.