The inimitable British folk singer, Nick Drake, produced three stellar records almost forty years ago and then fell into an abyss of depression before he faded away in a suspected suicide in 1974. After his death, he was virtually unknown for at least one decade, maybe even two or three, before his popularity sharply began to rise. There have been at least three different bootlegs produced in the past that have included some rare, pre- Five Leaves Left home recordings. Family Tree sees the first official release of these tracks, most of which are covers and traditional tracks that have been floating around for years. Although it is a good collection, there is not much new material included, and some key tracks are missing along with some unnecessary additions thrown in there as well.
Two of the best songs on Family Tree, “Been Smokin’ Too Long” and “Strange Meeting II,” were already included on the now out-of-print official release, Time of No Reply. The latter is presented here in a different and inferior version to the earlier version, but it is still an example of how truly original Nick Drake was as a songwriter. He almost always played his guitar with strange tunings, which makes his material extremely difficult to play or mimic. In addition, he is one of those folk guitarists, like Bert Jansch, whose obscenely agile playing makes the guitar sound like it is one of the easiest instruments to play. Just listen to these two tracks for clarification.
Some of the cover material is particularly strong on this release. Nick was influenced by the likes of folk icons Bert Jansch and Bob Dylan. His recording of the former’s “Strolling Down the Highway” is straightforward, but his playing is dead on and his rendition of Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” is just about as strong as the original version. There are also a few demo versions of songs that would later make it onto his first and best album, Five Leaves Left. The beautiful “Way to Blue” is featured here in the form of just Nick and a piano, stripped of the lush string arrangement that was recorded for the album version. There is also a rather nice version of “Day is Done” as a working version.
As stated earlier, most of these songs have been released previously as more than half of the songs on here were available on the widely distributed Tanworth-in-Arden bootleg, my copy of which was purchased from a corporate record store about ten years ago. Family Tree does boast superior sound quality to the bootlegs, but since none of these songs were professionally recorded, there is still a fair amount of hiss in the background on many of the tracks. The few songs on here that are entirely unheard, as far as I am aware, are very short pieces. There is a spoken word poem called “Time Piece,” that is interesting, but hard to decipher. There are also a couple of brief instrumentals, “Paddling the Rushes” and “Sketch 1,” which are good, but will probably only interest die hard fans.
The strangest thing about this collection is that the estate has tried to introduce Nick Drake from a historical perspective. The inclusion of two tracks written and performed by Nick’s mother, Molly, seems rather bizarre. There is also a Mozart trio performed by Nick on clarinet along with his aunt and uncle on viola and piano, respectively. I understand that the compilers of this album wanted to emphasize his history by pushing the point that Nick Drake came from a family of musicians, but the inclusion of these tracks is a little bit awkward.
There are also a few songs missing that were on the Tanworth-in-Arden record. Namely, a cover of Bert Jansch’s “Courting Blues” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” His version of the Gershwin standard, “Summertime,” was also quite strong, but that too has been left off Family Tree. If you are a rabid Nick Drake fan, you will want to get yourself a copy of this release, but it is probably only reserved for fanatics who have to have everything. I actually prefer Tanworth-in-Arden to Family Tree, even though the sound quality is not as good. It has a better running order and does not feel disjointed with the addition of Molly Drake songs. If you are interested in that one though, you will have to dig around on Ebay or some other dealer of rarities to track it down.