Counterbalance No. 160: Nick Drake's 'Five Leaves Left'

Betty came by on her way, said she had a word to say about things today and fallen leaves, not to mention the 160th most acclaimed album of all time. A pastoral touchstone is this week's Counterbalance.

Nick Drake

Five Leaves Left

US Release: 1969-09-01
UK Release: 1969-09-01
Label: Island

Klinger: During his all-too-short life, Nick Drake sold scant few records and barely toured. His artistic stature since his death in 1974, though, has grown immensely, and the three albums he released are well-ensconced in the canon. Five Leaves Left, his 1969 debut, marks his first appearance on The Great List, but all three of his LPs released during his lifetime appear in the Top 300.

For all that, though, I get the sense that Drake's legacy is somewhat muddled. Given the fact that countless people first became aware of his work through a curiously introspective 1990s Volkswagen commercial, and countless others first heard him through his reputation as a “potentially suicidal depressive" (to quote Nick Hornby), we might have a hard time assessing him as he was when he was alive—to see the sturdy oaks and prickly pines for the serene forest. Does that make sense, Mendelsohn, or has the pastoral folksiness of Nick Drake’s music made me lose my perspicacity?

Mendelsohn: Drake is an interesting case — a true cult figure in the music world. He was virtually unknown during his short career and if it weren’t for a couple of ardent supporters, one of whom happened to get a job at Island Records with enough sway to re-release Drake’s albums, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. There was really no initial critical response to Drake’s Five Leaves Left and commercial sales were nearly nonexistent. This wasn’t helped by Drake’s refusal to tour behind his records or do the necessary press to promote them. But then, the man was dealing with near-crippling mental illness that eventually — directly or indirectly — led to his untimely death.

As time passed the posthumous figure of Drake has only grown larger, starting with a handful of dedicated fans, which turned into influence within the music world — most notably with the Cure and R.E.M., and eventually ended in a well-produced commercial spot that effectively reintroduced Nick Drake to listeners, pushing his music up the charts, and I imagine, into the upper reaches of the Great List.

Sometimes I wish the Great List were as old as the canon itself, just so we could go back and see how some of these albums have moved since they were released. I suspect Five Leaves Left might show off the greatest gains — going from unknown to nearly essential listening, some 30 years after it was released.

But yeah, it’s hard to make heads or tails of this whole thing, especially when you have Drake sitting next to you, plucking away at his guitar and whispering about the wonders of the natural world.

Klinger: I think I am making both heads and tails of this. Five Leaves Left is one of the most powerful albums we've covered in quite some time, even if it is a quiet power. I compare it to Astral Weeks in terms of its general beauteousness and sense of longing, with that album's jazzish extrapolations replaced with a surprising forcefulness from Drake's confident guitar playing. His ability to work his way through a number of different time signatures and picking styles ("River Man" is in 5/4 time, for example, which brings a certain off-kilter leaning to the song) belies whatever wispy reputation he may have earned.

But there's also a clear sense of tradition in Drake's songwriting -- album closer "Saturday Sun" has a chord progression that alternates between gospelized soul and Gershwinesque classicism. Of course, he's also abetted throughout the album with sympathetic cohorts like fellow Brit-folkie Richard Thompson and Robert Kirby, whose incandescent string arrangement on "Way to Blue" essentially helps set a defining mood for Drake's entire career.

So we have the Great List's mathematical amalgamation of the critical hive mind stressing the importance of this album. I'm curious as to how this album hits your ears, Mendelsohn. You're typically less susceptible to both critical hype and the more introspective side of pop music (Don't try to deny it, either—I have you on record many times over). What’s your take?

Mendelsohn: While that may be true, I actually enjoy this album quite a bit -- most of it anyway -- I get a little bored in the middle. I was one of those from the younger generation that was introduced to Drake’s music thanks to the magic of advertising. It was that VW commercial that touched off a firestorm of interest in the music world and pushed Drake’s songs back into the public consciousness. I went out and got Pink Moon, spent a little time with Bryter Layter, and wandered through Five Leaves Left before moving on to whatever else was popping up at the time (15 years ago?!).

In returning to Five Leaves Left, I too immediately drew comparisons to Van Morrison but thinking about it now, Van was always more of a rocker and Astral Weeks was just a prelude to that career path. With Drake, he actively sought out the softer sounds, later shedding the accompaniment and arrangements that helped define his sound on Five Leaves Left. But I think those arrangements are to key helping his sound rise above the rest. I would even go so far as to say that it was the work of Thompson, Kirby, and the direction of producer Joe Boyd that really pushes Five Leaves Left from the level of good into greatness. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to sit down and listen to some random guy play the guitar in a corner, I would choose Nick Drake every time. His guitar playing is exquisite and it is those songs where his lyrics ride the lolling waves of his guitar playing that he is at his best.

Klinger: Well, geez Mendelesohn, I was hoping for a little more or a zesty back and forth where you call Five Leaves Left a snoozer and I get all defensive, and then we end up arguing about whether you were listening to the album incorrectly, possibly while running the vacuum or eating potato chips. I might have told you to go back and listen to the way that Drake modifies the blues on "Three Hours", weaving it into the very British pastoral folk music that was coming into vogue in the late 1960s.

Or I might have stressed the sweet ambivalence that's infused throughout "Fruit Tree", in which he delivers a rumination on the fame that he would never experience throughout his life (not to mention just how prescient he seemed to be). And how that message seemed even more trenchant in the 1990s, when an entire music industry was reaching its peak unsustainable capacity, and the so-called alternative musicians who were getting swallowed up in the tide of that business found themselves grappling with the meaning behind Drake's words even more than when he wrote them. Given the generally less-sweet ambivalence that was the lingua franca of the '90s (not to mention the overwhelming grunge fatigue that was surely gripping the pop world at the time) it makes sense that Drake's posthumous resurgence came along when it did.

These are the arguments I'd have expected to make, but it turns out that you're right there with me the whole time. But I guess that's not surprising -- such is the siren song of Nick Drake. You'd have to be some kind of robot to listen to this album and remain unmoved. And it’s that ability to move people across the decades that explains why his cult has only continued to grow over the decades. Whatever else was going on in his life, there was something uncanny in his voice, something that reaches across time to find the lonely places that exist in all of us.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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