Tuesday, November 14, 2006

150. Nick Drake - Five Leaves Left (1969)

Track Listing

1. Time Has Told Me
2. River Man
3. Three Hours
4. Day Is Done
5. Way To Blue
6. Cello Song
7. Thoughts Of Mary Jane
8. Man In A Shed
9. Fruit Tree
10. Saturday Sun


Ok, this is an album which is definitely on my top 10, if not top 5 albums of all time, it is as close to perfection as an album is possible to get. Everything is just right, form Drake's voice and lyrics, to the amazing guitar playing and the heart-breaking orchestration...

This is not a chirpy album at all, in fact it is permeated by this sense of depression but never falling into excess like Tim Buckley for example. It is just composed of deceptively simple songs which are innefably beautiful... and that is probably the defining word of this album, beauty. It isn't gritty or raw, but it is beautiful and actually pretty innovative as well. Again it's an album that folk purist would have disliked at the time. It is folk, but the jazz influence is much more pronounced than even in Pentangle, particularly in Saturday Son which sounds almost like something that Nina Simone might have performed. If I can compare it to any other album before it in style it would have to be Nico's Chelsea Girl, but it is unique enought that not even that comparison fits it.

Another thing about this album is just how intemporal it feels, there is no way you could tell that this album is 37 years old, it sounds as fresh today as it ever did. It did not date one iota since it was made... it is a truly majestic work of art and something that you owe yourself to listen to if you haven't already, form it's beautiful strings to the beautiful lyrics there is nothing that you can point your finger at in this album. Stream it from Napster or buy it from Amazon UK or US.

Track Highlights

Sophie's fucking choice.

1. Way To Blue
2. 'Cello Song
3. Saturday Son
4. River Man

Final Grade



No videos of him of course, as he died unknown, but here's a slide show of pictures of him to the sound of River Man:

From Wikipedia:

Drake began recording his debut album Five Leaves Left during the spring of 1969, with Boyd assuming the role of producer. The sessions took place in Sound Techniques studio, London, during days when Drake would skip lectures to travel by train to the capital. Boyd was inspired by John Simon's production of Leonard Cohen's first album, and was keen that Drake's voice would be recorded in a similar "close and intimate" style, "with no shiny pop reverb". He also sought to feature a similar string arrangement to Simon's, "without overwhelming...or sounding cheesy".

To provide backing, Boyd enlisted various members of the London folk rock scene, including Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson, and Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson. John Wood was recruited as engineer, with Richard Hewson drafted to provide the string arrangements. However, initial recordings didn't go well. The sessions were irregular and rushed, taking place during studio downtime borrowed from Fairport Convention's production of their Unhalfbricking album. Tension arose between artist and producer as to the direction the album should take – Boyd was an advocate of George Martins 'using the studio as an instrument' approach, while Drake's preference was for a more 'organic' and 'pure' sound. Biographer Tervor Dann has observed that Drake sounds "tight and anxious" on bootleg recordings taken from these sessions, and notes a number of unsuccessful attempts at instrumentation.

Both Boyd and Drake were unhappy with Hewson's contributions, and Drake suggested using his college friend Robert Kirby as a replacement. Boyd was sceptical at taking on a music student without recording experience, but he was impressed by Drake's uncharacteristic forthcoming, and agreed to a trial. Kirby had previously presented Drake with some arrangements for his songs, and went on to provided the spare chamber music quartet score associated with the sound of the final album.

Confident of the album's sucess, Drake ended his studies at Cambridge just nine months before graduation, and in autumn 1969 moved to London to concentrate on songwriting. His father remembered "writing him long letters, pointing out the disadvantages of going away from Cambridge...a degree was a safety net, if you manage to get a degree, at least you have something to fall back on. His reply to that was that a safety net was the one thing he did not want." Drake spent his first few months in the capital drifting from place to place, occasionally staying at his sister's Kensington flat, but more usually sleeping on friend's sofas and floors. Eventually he moved into a ground floor bedsit in Belsize Park, paid for by Witchseason .

Post-production difficulties led to the release being delayed by several months, and the album was poorly marketed and supported when it finally arrived. Reviews in the music press were few and lukewarm. In July Melody Maker referred to the album as "poetic" and "interesting", NME wrote in October that there was "not nearly enough variety to make it entertaining". He was reportedly unhappy with the inlay sleeve, which printed songs in the wrong running order and reproduced verses omitted from the recorded versions. Drake's disappointment with the final result is reflected in an interview comment by his sister Gabrielle: "He was very secretive. I knew he was making an album but I didn't know what stage of completion it was at until he walked into my room and said, "There you are." He threw it on to the bed and walked out!'"

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