Nick Drake: Bryter Layter

I don’t usually take part in the trend of mythologising mysterious and troubled troubadours who died young. Heroizing chronically depressed introverted songwriters has almost become a cliché; when you ask the shy, misty-eyed girl at school who her favourite artist is, she’ll almost undoubtedly say ‘Elliott Smith’ or ‘Jeff Buckley’ and make some comment about their self-destructive genius.

Nick Drake, then, seems like the total embodiment of this. But there isn’t a hint of self-pity nor any delusions of grandeur disguised under a sheet of sensitive modesty. When you strip back all the myth and enigmatic photos (above), there is music of unfathomable beauty and a voice like pastoral English wind. Howzat for teenage poetry?

As for the albums (the best being ’71’s Bryter Layter), Drake never put a foot wrong. When he died, he left a small but completely perfect musical legacy, though some of his less interesting demos, cover versions and unreleased material has been procured and released later by industry execs scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Bryter Layter is his lushest, most musical album. It counters the underproduced fatalism of ’72’s Pink Moon with elaborate, flowing string sections and somewhat of a ‘pop sensibility’, if such a thing can be measured in someone like Drake. For a singer-songwriter well-read in Romantic poetry, these songs (and their lyrics) gladly lack any Absinthe grandeur. It also contains Northern Sky, arguably his most extraordinary record.


John Fahey

John Fahey’s fingers hold the key to great guitar music. Enlightened at an early age by old 78rpm records of mysterious blues musicians (his turning point was being brought to tears by Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Praise God I’m Satisfied’), Fahey began to craft his own, minimalist guitar style informed by his musical knowledge and dexterity, as well as the understanding that the key to the blues is that you must be far more informed by emotion, experience and personality as you are by a technical musical understanding. This is why players like Leo Kottke, while extraordinarily gifted in their own way, could never quite match the sheer hypnotized musical mindfulness that one gets the sense both the audience and Fahey feel when he plays in a handful of performances. He shakes his head and lets the sound flow, any ‘hiccup’ simply being an interrupted transmission of his soul.

His brilliant sense for dissonance and economy made his guitar a kind of channel through which America’s natural essence and character could travel in song. As Jimmy Crosthwait (a musician on Fahey’s own early ‘Takoma’ label) put it: ‘Music is a part of the pulse, the heartbeat of this place. Maybe it’s linked to the Mississippi River–if you think about it, there’s a steady, giant volume of matter moving at 9mph… Which almost has some magnetic pull.’ Through the dissonant pluck of a few ringing notes, he held an archive of American music past while envisioning his own characterful pastiche of his country’s myth and legend filled with enigmatic blind bluesmen and talking turtles. Old and weird enough for ya, Greil?

Here’s ‘Song’ from his 1972 record ‘Of Rivers and Religion’. Highly recommended albums include The Yellow Princess (1968), The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party (1966) and the Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965)

‘fahey was a magician.’
– Unkown Youtube commenter

Old and Weird

I’ve yet to find a more concise and accurate way of describing the allure and joy of early recordings of blues and folk music than Greil Marcus’: that they come from the ‘old, weird America‘. They’re weird because there’s never any solid information surrounding them. Nobody really knows the life story of Charley Patton, the supposed ‘father of the Delta blues’, and we know even less about the men and women who first inspired him.

This, to me, is the joy of listening to very old recorded music (from 1920
until the point music became a monster industry), with every little crackle and every fuzzy wail.
In a world where all aspects of a celebrity’s life is at your grubby little typing mitts, one of the great delights of collecting music is hearing some obscure recording from a shack (or was it a barn?) of a forgotten blind man singing a story about his mother that may or may not be true. That’s why the advent of recording was the historian’s wet dream; folk music is the music of the grass-roots of the Earth, and nothing can provide a more meaningful glimpse into the life and soul of some irrecoverable commoner for whom neither birth nor death certificate has ever been produced, than an impassioned blues song.


By the way, Mississippi John Hurt is by no means an irrecoverable commoner…                                                

3 New Discoveries

Here are 3 songs that I have recently discovered. One of them is American, and the other two are Québécois. As I always say; make of that what you will. Youtube links are highlighted as ‘here’.

1. Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Dancer With Bruised Knees (1977)

Dancer with Bruised Knees

These two sisters’ voices were among the finest in folk and traditional pop. The music is wonderfully accessible, but with a certain sharp humor and edge that could only come from two people who really could not care less about image and success. Their second album, Dancer with Bruised Knees, was released in 1977 to lesser critical acclaim than their self-titled debut, but was championed by Robert Christgau, who later ranked it among the greatest albums of the decade. This track, the opening title, blends a certain traditional swing with a glorious studio lightness.

You can listen to the song here on Youtube. But please, go and buy the bloody album.

2. Buffalo Springfield: Rock and Roll Woman (1967)

Culled from their second album (the best one), this joy of a song is a light, jumping little piece of folk pop contributed by Steven Stills. Buffalo Springfield both benefitted and were handicapped by having two true geniuses as songwriters. Their dual presence makes this album a slightly jarring synthesis, but with moments like this, who cares. One of the most overlooked bands of the sixties, which somewhat adds to their mystery.

Listen to the song here on Youtube, and buy the album.

3. Harmonium: DiHarmonium - Si On Avait Besoin D'Une Cinquième Saison.jpgxie (1975)

This French-Canadian folk-prog band (bear with me) were never popular, as the start of my sentence probably already indicates. Still, they made beautiful music, which met its peak with ‘Si on avait besoin d’une cinquième saison’, their second album of pastoral Québécois beauty. This joyous Dixieland tribute will have you bouncing around the room.

Did I mention you should buy the album?