The same intricate acoustic guitar figure opens Poor Boy: Songs of Nick Drake as does 1994's Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake. And what was so right about that "best of" compilation is what's wrong with this new, well-intentioned tribute album.
The guitar riff is from "Cello Song", which in Drake's hands was breezy yet decidedly somber, as was so often the case with this brilliant, depressive English folkie. On Poor Boy, his lick is painstakingly reproduced, note-for-note. So far, so-so. Then an atrocious electronic beat joins in, and I lose it. Yes, an electronic beat.
Despite several tracks like this one -- wan, misguided attempts to imitate and then update Drake's classic sound -- Poor Boy boasts several winning qualities. But it's more likely to appeal to jazz aficionados than to Nick Drake fans.
You see, Nick Drake is doleful. Nick Drake is, in his quiet, forlorn way, delightful. At the finest moments on this new tribute album, he's, with apologies to Cole Porter and a current Hollywood movie, de-lovely.
Oddly, Poor Boy is at its best when it and its cast of relative unknowns (to me, anyway) present his songs as part of a canon of new standards.
The most memorable tracks here are piano-based. Drake's bizarre tunings and complex finger-picking are virtually inimitable; perhaps that's why anyone attempting to play his notes on guitar inevitably sounds like a mere shadow of the master. But on piano, Drake's gorgeous melodies are given free rein, without concern for copying the original recordings.
I'd buy the album for Kate Hammett-Vaughan's smoldering take on the title track alone. To be fair, "Poor Boy" does feature some piano on Drake's original Bryter Later rendition, and with swooning saxophone it was always one of his jazziest tunes. But Hammett-Vaughan's performance, aided and abetted by pianist Chris Gestrin, guitarist Ron Samworth and bassist Simon Fisk, makes a compelling argument for "Poor Boy" as a should-be jazz standard. Hammett-Vaughan's throaty alto evokes clouds of cigarette smoke and martini shakers. If jazz clubs everywhere start tackling this number, I'll be a very happy camper.
Similarly, "Hanging on a Star" benefits from tasteful piano and a lovely duet of female voices. The original's fey, plangent wisdom remains, but Robin Holcomb and Veda Hille make the song sound like it should be performed this way in every coffeehouse across the land for years to come. That's the strength of the best numbers on this album: They take songs that were almost like museum pieces, because so few of us ever heard Drake in concert -- and he rarely improvised anyway -- and they bring the songs into a lively dialogue with the popular music continuum.
"For Nick/Horn/Know" takes this idea to a logical extreme, combining an original tribute with two Drake covers for an extended jazz jam session. The ostinato bass of "Know" provides a steady anchor for trumpeter Brad Turner's flights of fancy.
A version of Pink Moon's "Road" combines the improvisatory daring of "For Nick�" with a folksy duet much like the one from "Hanging on a Star". Again, the piano proves to be the Drake tribute artist's best friend.
Much of the rest of the album recalls "Cello Song" -- dry, modernized reiterations of things Drake already said better. "Things Behind the Sun" is an earnest rendition, with the only difference a throaty vocal delivery and spaghetti-Western electric guitar straight out Neil Young's Dead Man score. Ian Moore's "Black Eyed Dog" is ambitious, to be sure, featuring a droning sitar (aren't they all?). But it's ultimately a 10-minute failure.
Too, some of Drake's best songs (to this critic's ears) are left out: "Pink Moon", obviously, but also "Time Has Told Me", "Northern Sky" and "Saturday Sun". The last of these would be particularly suited for this compilation, with its sweaty, fervent piano.
Nevertheless, Poor Boy's scattered triumphs allow Drake's songs to transcend both his time and our own, helping ensure that they will persevere not just as fragile, haunted recordings, but as living, breathing compositions to be reinterpreted for years to come. That's a noble victory.