Various Artists, "Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake" (StorySound-Carthage) -- The most significant musical achievement of the 1960s was the overall transformation of singers from showmen to artists. The extra role demanded hyphenation -- singer-songwriter -- and the creation of music and its link to one's identity became as important (often more so) as its performance. Then, as that decade waned, a shy young Briton who hated performing retreated toward the far side of this new equation and produced some of the world's first and best bedroom-indie records. Nick Drake managed to have an enormous impact as an artist without trotting the boards like a modern-day vaudevillian.
Of course, he didn't get much chance.
Drake died in 1974 at age 26, but the three albums he left behind became treasured prizes handed off among moody fans and songwriters. In 1999, the title track to "Pink Moon" was used in a Volkswagen commercial, and a new generation rushed online to find out who recorded that delicate masterpiece. This new tribute effort -- a series of concerts recorded in Europe and Australia, organized by Drake's original producer, Joe Boyd -- ably showcases that impact, even if it doesn't go nearly far enough.
These occasional gatherings of singer-songwriters from the same basic cult status as Drake himself comprise "Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake" and evoke less a sense of discovery than a deep, sometimes funereal reverence. Few of these recordings approach the chilling magic of the originals -- Luluc, Vashti Bunyan, Lisa Hannigan and others are so breathy and awed that their steadfast interpretations never lift from the hymnal pages -- but a few rise above the knowing NPR Music air and ionize things a bit. Robyn Hitchcock, a keen medium for Drake's drone (and a frequent compatriot of Boyd's), balances the soft tones of "Parasite" with his more reedy voice, plus the lovely addition of some otherworldly oboe. Scritti Politti's Green Gartside (!) showcases his usual strength in restraint ("Fruit Tree"), an excellent quality to bring to this particular table, and Shane Nicholson adds pendulous swing to the jazzy "Poor Boy." The best breakthrough is too good for words -- a mulled jazz instrumental led by pianist Zoe Rahman and bassist Danny Thompson (who actually played with Drake). That everyone's good intentions never quite transcend only underscores Drake's legacy.
For a real treat, look to the self-titled collection of songs by Molly Drake , Nick's mum. Recorded in the 1950s in the family living room and recently restored by Nick's engineer, John Wood, these piano ballads are clearly the fountainhead of Nick's masterful balance of pastoral joy with overcast melancholy. "Molly Drake" will satisfy a spirit of discovery far more than "Way to Blue," and it's a charmer all by itself. Available for download at Bandcamp.