British folkster Nick Drake's gorgeous, melancholy, tantalizingly ambiguous songs have been covered often, but not perhaps with the range of interpretive powers and depth of emotional commitment that these (mostly) Vancouver and Seattle artists bring to bear in re-imagining his music.
Long fascinated and deeply moved by Drake's work as well as by his enigmatic persona, Songlines label owner Tony Reif mounted a 4 1/2 hour tribute concert in Vancouver in 1999 which was recorded by the CBC. After mulling over the tapes for a year or two he decided to produce a tribute record from scratch, with high quality studio sound and the benefit of hindsight. The concert had covered the stylistic spectrum, from pop, rock, folk, and singer-songwriter to jazz and ambient. Reif began by concentrating on the jazz side, revisiting Nick's songs with Vancouver musicians he knew well -- clarinetist Francois Houle, vocalist Kate Hammett-Vaughan, pianist Chris Gestrin, guitarist Tony Wilson, and cellist Peggy Lee, and bassist Simon Fisk -- and adding vocalists Jason Michas and Danielle Hebert, guitarist Ron Samworth, trumpeter Brad Turner, violinist Jesse Zubot, drummer Dylan van der Schyff, and visiting Italian accordionist Filippo Gambetta. The arrangements left room for improvisation; the feeling modulated from introspective to hip, knowing to exploratory, and everything was recorded in a couple of takes, with no overdubs or editing (except for Houle's solo clarinet fantasia on "Road").
A concert highlight had been the collaboration of singer-songwriter Veda Hille and one of her heroes, Seattle's Robin Holcomb. Their two songs were now recorded in Seattle, as was singer-songwriter Ian Moore's first-time collaboration with the brilliant string player Eyvind Kang. Reif also organized a session with other Seattle musicians he had gotten to know -- out/rock guitarist Bill Horist, genre-busting singer-songwriters Aiko Shimada, Mike Dumovich and Sam Mickens, and studio/electronics guru Tucker Martine. (As Mount Analog the latter was also working on a cover of "River Man" with alt-country songster Jesse Sykes). The Seattle recordings were tracked more like a pop record: with layers of overdubs certain songs took on a psychedelic aura, while others seemed stripped down to the essentials of melody, harmony and lyrics. They frequently made use of tools not at Drake's disposal (e.g. electronics) or approaches that might have occurred to him but that he never developed (the quasi-devotional raga-like feel of "Black Eyed Dog").
Reif now pondered the sequencing. He wanted the record to have an experiential arc, and knew that like the concert it would climax with "Black Eyed Dog" followed by Nick's transcendental envoi "From the Morning." It was already plenty long but, once again unwilling or unable to call it a day, Reif played his last wild card and emailed Ian Masters, former lead singer of the British shoegazer band Pale Saints, now living in Japan. Masters' Friendly Science Orchestra had contributed to a Tim Buckley tribute but Reif wanted something farther out; Masters came up with a spookily disengaged rendition of "Parasite." As the mastering neared completion, Reif decided that to do the record sonic justice required converting the 24-bit master to DSD for release as a hybrid SACD (Songlines' preferred format).
For the design of Poor Boy Reif had developed a visual metaphor -- photographs of Drake's black leather pouch/changepurse containing a 1948 ha' penny (the year of his birth), a gift from his father that he apparently always carried with him for luck...not therefore a coin to be lightly thrown over the poor boy's shoulder. But, as Richard and Linda Thompson put it after Nick's death in "The Poor Boy is Taken Away" -- a song as rich in ironic (yet heartfelt) implication as many of his own lyrics: No use standing, waving adieu / The penny won't drop in your mind / The penny won't drop in your mind / The old flame's left you behind.
A keen sense of absence and its flip side, an intimate if ghostly presence, is perhaps the central Drake trope, the thing that, once felt, seems to pull the listener ever deeper into his world of transience and permanence. Now, with the release in June 2004 of a newly discovered Drake song and other unheard treasures (Made to Love Magic, Island/Universal), the legacy will again be re-evaluated. Poor Boy confirms its expressive potential for musicians drawn to his vision and capable of giving it their own voice. This is music that truly crosses styles.