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Recent album review #1
From early 1972 until his death in late 1974, Nick Drake lived in a muted antidepressant-induced daze, in his childhood home with his parents. Family and friends claim he was frequently isolated in his room - and from them too, not speaking or communicating in any way, just staring off into nowhere.

Drake's mental state was made even more troubling because there would be brief periods of normalcy, sometimes lasting weeks, followed by dramatic relapses. His sister recalls one day that he got out of bed and said he was leaving for town, but hours later the police phoned his family, claiming he was marooned at a zebra crossing, unable to move for over an hour.

Apparently, one of Drake's most calming activities was to drive his car. It appeared to act as a sort of therapy - he would sometimes just drive two or three miles and then come home, but other times he would drive for days, stopping to 'visit' friends (although he would just show up at their houses and not say a word, sleep on their floor, then be gone in the morning), or until he ran out of gas and called his father to pick him up.

In the final two months of his life, Drake seemed to have an extended period of calm. He listened to language records in an attempt to relearn conversational French, and planned a trip to Paris. His subsequent vacation there was spent living at a friend’s house near Notre Dame, but no one is exactly sure what he did or even how long he stayed.

Upon his return home, Drake's parents noticed how happy he seemed, and he even talked to them about getting back into music. But this was never to be ... on a cold November night, Drake died in his sleep from an overdose of Tryptizol, one of three anti-depressant medications he was taking (the other two were Stelazine and Disipal).

Amazingly though, Drake had managed to call John Wood just weeks before his trip to Paris, and organize a recording session - his last songs laid to tape. Joe Boyd asked Drake if he could also attend the session as well, and both he and Wood have since said that Drake was in such a bad state that they had to record his guitar first before laying down a vocal on most of the tracks.

Nevertheless, each of the five songs recorded in that lone session were better than most every song on Pink Moon, and one of them might just be the best track Drake ever recorded ...

“Rider on the Wheel” is startlingly upbeat and delicate sounding, its lyrics describing the brief lapses of sanity Drake felt while driving, the cyclic rise and fall of his moods: And now you know my name, but I don't feel the same. But I ain't gonna blame the rider on the wheel. And round and round we go, we take it fast and slow. I must keep up a show for the rider on the wheel, the rider on the wheel. Drake's voice sounds a little hoarse and weary, but his performance is excellent.

“Hanging on a Star” describes the anger and confusion Drake felt over not being successful. Apparently - sometime before the recording session - Drake read the song's lyrics to his former producer, and Boyd subsequently stated that he was astonished because he'd never heard Drake angry before that conversation. Whilst Drake sings the song with an unpolished voice that sounds slightly disturbing when compared to his other recordings, the tune itself proves he was still a virtuoso on guitar, even in his depression, strumming and picking with conviction.

In “Voices” Drake seems to be asking God when it will all end. The tune is almost anthemic - with its slow build-up and great melody, it's one of the catchiest songs in Drake’s catalog, and he seems to know it: I know my name, my name, but this tune is more. It may be a little too long, but it had the potential to be a hit had it been released as a single.

Apparently, when Joe Boyd left England to work in America following Bryter Layter, Drake took his departure very badly, and some have claimed that Boyd was the one person who kept Drake from slipping into a depression sooner than he did.

With that in mind, “Tow the Line” might be about Drake’s former producer, hoping that this time the two partners could finally find a way to get Drake the money, fame, and success he had long been striving towards ... And now that you’re here you can show me the way, now that you’re here we can finally make it pay. For while you were gone it was hard, it was cold, while you were gone we were time we were old. If you show us we can tow the line ... The tune is sung and played with urgency - a strange determination - not found on any other Drake song. He seems so much more forceful here and it actually does seem like he is singing with purpose.

And lastly, there's the gripping almost indescribable “Black Eyed Dog”. A black dog is a sign of death creeping in, made famous by Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail”. Drake's original version here is a dangerous sound: chilling, unsettling, and bleak ... A black-eyed dog he called at my door. A black-eyed dog he knew my name. Drake seems to know that he is too far gone, he seems to understand that this is all there is left, that this one song is the only way he can describe his imminent fate.

These are all tremendous songs, and a testament to Nick Drake’s unique talent. Knowing an artist’s history makes me appreciate their music more, and that's certainly the case with Nick Drake. So I might be a little biased in reviewing his material, but you won’t find an artist with more beautiful songs than Drake came up with in his five maddening and all-too-brief years of recording.

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by Reviewer: Jason Motell

Posted: Tuesday 3rd May 2016 3:20 PM

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Recent album review #2
At first pursuing a solo career in the early-80's, it wasn't until 1991 that Shara Nelson gained some recognition - as co-writer and vocalist on Massive Attack's trip-hop album Blue Lines. She then left Massive Attack to again pursue her aspirations of a solo career, which resulted in two solo albums - What Silence Knows (1993), and Friendly Fire (1995).

Nelson's rise to prominence as a solo artist in her own right proved brief, and her career subsequently reverted to guest appearances on other artist's albums, and session work, and that reversal of fortunes can be accounted for by the points I mentioned in my review of Friendly Fire. Nevertheless, it's a pity in some ways, as What Silence Knows signals a degree of promise in both Nelson's songwriting and singing that simply wasn't delivered upon by Friendly Fire.

The problems with Friendly Fire are also manifest here, but not to the same extent. The result is that What Silence Knows is one of those albums that has some excellent songs mixed with much lesser material, such that it's a very uneven listening experience.

That's further compounded by Nelson's somewhat unusual vocal delivery. In some ways she has a very good voice, and that's reflected on the best tracks here. But all too frequently she slips from singing into pure wailing, which isn't especially attractive ... and the sweet spot - the point where her voice acquires a unique character - is right on the knife-edge between the singing and the wailing, so it's very easy for her to fall on the wrong side of the fence.

That's most well-exemplified here with "How Close", an otherwise good song that's completely ruined by Nelson's loud wailing in the chorus. And the same problem pops up on quite a few other tracks too (such as the way she sings Nobody in the opening track - it's just very jarring on the ears), so they constitute the lesser material I mentioned earlier.

But - unlike with Friendly Fire - Nelson does at least manage to hit the sweet spot a few times on What Silence Knows. Both her songwriting and singing on "One Goodbye in Ten", "Thoughts of You", and "Uptight", are all in the 4½ to 5 star range. And this album of course also includes her big hit "Down That Road", a song I don't much care for myself, but nevertheless it does fall on the side of the better-quality material.

Those good songs all have something in common ... a prominent shuffling trip-hop styled percussion, ideal for dancing / swaying along to; accompanied by perky stabs of brass and low-key orchestrals; plus a steady plodding bass ... all of which provides just the right relatively sparse foundation for Nelson's vocals to float about above it all, without her lapsing into wailing.

At its best, both Nelson's delivery and material makes me think of her as being a female equivalent to Roland Gift / Fine Young Cannibals' album The Raw and the Cooked - it has that same kind of dancey Motown-ish vibe. It's just a pity Nelson couldn't produce a full album's worth of such material, then perhaps her solo career may've lasted longer than one half-decent promising debut, and a pretty crappy follow-up.

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by Reviewer: bluemoon

Posted: Wednesday 4th May 2016 12:37 AM

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