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The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs Of Nick Drake (Chrysalis)

LEONARD COHEN MAY HAVE BEEN JOKING but he wasn’t wrong when, towards the end of his life, he suggested his Hallelujah should not be covered again for a decade or two. A great song, yes, and there have been many great versions, but it became too much, too often and, in the end, too similar.

You could replace Cohen’s name with others like Bob Dylan or The Beatles or Joni Mitchell and find examples to complete that sentence. If I never hear another version of River or Case Of You, for example, it would likely still be too soon, and I say that as someone whose friends and/or artists I admire can make something of a living performing them at Joni tribute shows and the like.

That’s not because I have grown tired of the songs – I doubt I ever will, or ever could – and not strictly because I think there are other many other equally great works in that peerless catalogue people could try (but people come on! How about, for some easy alternatives, ones like Come In From The Cold? The Hissing Of Summer Lawns? Amelia?), but because it is a long while since I learnt anything new or thought anything fresh in one of these versions.

The problem is too often reverence takes precedence and comfort fills the centre: giving people what they say they want (and certainly what the promoter selling tickets or label selling copies want), which is familiarity; and artists reverting to the young fans they once were, and letting that rule the art.

Given all that, when you add a catalogue much smaller and far less musically and structurally diverse than that of the artists already mentioned to this base assumption, the portents are not great are they? Consequently, a collection of Nick Drake songs does not inspire particular excitement, even if the list of contributors suggests at least we are not getting the usual suspects.

So what a joy to discover imagination and adventure, balanced with thoughtfulness, given at least as much weight as respect here. With the exception of Ben Harper’s Time Has Told Me (which is, in keeping with the bulk of Harper’s career, pleasant but somewhat plodding) each of these songs feels as if it has been approached with two questions: why would someone want to hear what I have to say on it?; what can I do to reward that enquiry?

Fontaine’s D.C. make Cello Song quite febrile without gratuitous toughening: the pulsing drums and bass and twanging guitar at the beginning setting up a sense of tension that is based more on energy than threat; mandolin lightly dancing through the middle; strings and life bringing it home with eyes wide open. Later, John Parish and Aldous Harding give Three Hours a steady motorik pace and steadily nervier guitar, a glistening of keyboard sounds and two voices that hold a conversation simultaneously close and at some distance.

In each case the song feels intact but re-dressed, truthful but re-angled.

For Emeli Sande, the lovely rolling guitar rhythm of Drake’s original recording of One Of These Things First is reimagined as a kind of dragging trip-hop beat that relocates it in a decidedly more urban setting. That is reinforced when organ and backing vocals elevate a gospel touch and her voice leans into a little husky soulfulness. Something similar happens with Saturday Sun where Mike Lindsay, of Tunng and LUMP, and Guy Garvey, of Elbow, place the pretty, piano-based original into a kind of jazz through the looking glass perspective that ends up feeling as if it is gazing down on us from a glass-walled city tower.

On the other hand, Katherine Priddy’s I Think They’re Leaving Me Behind is right at hand, winding its way through back streets and appearing in and out of view but always its breath felt.

Whether it is trumpet gently piercing the clouds and cymbals being lightly skimmed, or the way Karine Polwart and Kris Drever evoke a sense of journey beginning in the singing, Northern Sky comes with rustic momentum, while Nadia Reid’s unfussy but ever rolling Poor Boy balances between ale and craft beer, between country road and highway cruise.

And where understatement rules, such as in the breathy space of Harvest Breed (with Skullcrusher and Gia Margaret almost but never fully ephemeral), the scratchy, twirling atmosphere of Fly (Radiohead’s Philip Selway suggesting a children’s storyteller set up in a bazaar), or the flighty but trailing-light Hazey Jane II (Camille Europeanising polite Englishness), there’s still experimentation beyond the obvious.

Best of all, these songs which in the main I have been immersed in for decades now, feel open to rediscovery. To which I can only respond, hallelujah.

SPOTIFY: Listen to The Endless Coloured Ways

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