The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs of Nick Drake
Millie Small, the Jamaican singer who'd had an international hit with 'My Boy Lollipop' in 1964, and Alexis Korner, the pioneer of the British Blues scene may appear to have had very little in common. Yet, oddly, they are linked as being the only two artists to have covered songs by Nick Drake during his brief lifetime. Furthermore, their interpretations couldn't have been more different: Millie, whose song appeared first, offered a refreshing bluebeat reworking of 'Mayfair', whilst Korner chose 'Saturday Sun'. After the seductive tingle of the boogie-woogie piano intro, Korner's version settles down into a faithful if formulaic R&B reading. It's competent, it's excellently played...but really, it's just not very... exciting.
I think of these two songs when listening to 'The Endless Coloured Ways', a new Nick Drake tribute album curated by Cally Callomon (Manager of the Nick Drake Estate), and Jeremy Lascelles (Head of Chrysalis Records). Their brief to those artists was simple: “...ignore the original recording of Nick’s, and reinvent the song in their own unique ways" And hearing that brief I think of Millie making something fabulously different out of 'Mayfair' and I want, I hope, that the artists on this album to do the same...
I’m delighted that many of the artists that have contributed to 'The Endless Coloured Ways' have made some very exciting and brave choices. Fontaines DC, open the album with a spirited take on 'Cello Song' to show just what is possible, a meshing of their post-punk sensibilities with the tenderness of the song. It's a bold choice, a fabulous place to start and it works perfectly. But it’s John Parish and Aldous Harding who bring elements of Kosmische Musik to their bewildering version of ‘Three Hours’ which is the most radical re-invention here: A mix of pulsing, motorik rhythms, Harding’s spellbinding vocals and minimal synth motifs makes this song so mesmerising.
It's important to note that 'The Endless Coloured Ways' is not merely an exercise in deconstructing Nick Drake's material, there are some wonderful additions from artists that would describe themselves as folk. Firstly there is the loving and tender version of 'Northern Sky' by celebrated Scottish singer-songwriters Karine Polwart and Kris Drever. A song made all the more lovely by Phil Cardwell's evocative trumpet playing. Secondly there is Katherine Priddy who is probably the one artist here that has already performed Drake's songs. Her contribution is of the lesser-known 'I Think They're Leaving Me Behind' (there's a fairly raw home recording of it on the 'Family Tree' compilation), it's a courageous choice. The droning strings of the haunted introduction is reminiscent of Radiohead's 'Pyramid Song'. It is a song that builds layer upon layer, her lonely voice wrapped around a swirling, cinematic arrangement.
As an artist who has written and performed some fearless songs in recent years, Self Esteem is daring enough to tackle the haunted 'Black Eyed Dog'. Craig Armstrong's chilly string arrangement is the ideal setting for Lucy Rebecca Taylor's sensitive reading. An actual goosebumps moment. As with so many tribute albums, there are a handful of disappointments by those that you expected so much more from, but this is a rarity here and I won’t trouble you with the names. It’s better to look at the one artist that you had no expectations from that ultimately steals the show. And that’s where we find ‘Let’s Eat Grandma’s astonishing version of ‘From the Morning.’ The synthetic percussion that opens the song is stark and unassuming, it feels like an early OMD demo, but then Jenny Hollingworth’s vocals are so direct and so deeply affecting. She finds succour beyond the sadness. It’s the song that includes the line that was added to Drake’s gravestone (‘Now we rise, and we are everywhere’), and it is poignantly delivered. It is wondrous.
For those who would prefer Nick Drake’s songs to be left untouched, to be preserved like beautiful museum pieces, then ‘The Endless Coloured Ways’ is definitely not for you. But such songs shouldn’t just exist in the past, in order to become the folk songs of future generations, they need to reimagined. They need to breathe. It is what these songs deserve and somehow, I feel that Nick Drake would approve.
Read Jay's review of Richard Morton Jack's new biography of Nick Drake here